Assembling a Team of Voices to Reach Your Teens

By Tim Elmore


Like most mothers, my wife shared a common objection when our kids were teens. She’d make requests of them, repeatedly, but get no response. To be clear, our daughter and son were not hearing impaired, nor did they have ADHD. It seemed they had selective hearing skills:


  • They often did not hear the words clean up your room or put your dishes in the sink.
  • They usually did hear the words we’re getting ice cream or we’re going to Disney World.


Similarly, educators tell me that three months into the semester, their students often don’t hear instructions accurately. It’s as if they are tuning in and out of discussions. Whether at home or at school, we frequently chalk this up to teen rebellion or teen apathy. During those strange years of adolescence, students can rebel against the norms they’ve been taught. New research, however, reveals something else happening in their brains during adolescence that parents and teachers should know. 


What Current Research Reveals about the Teen Brain

Stanford behavioral scientist Percy Mistry and his team conducted functional MRI scans of teen brains, ages 13-16 ½. During the scans, they played recordings of the participant’s mother as well as other voices the participant did not know. Earlier, the research team conducted a similar study on younger children, ages 7-12. They hoped to discover how a child’s brain might respond to these voices, depending on their age. 


What did they discover?


When the younger children’s brains identified their mother’s familiar voice, it triggered all sorts of responses beyond that of merely hearing, including reward centers and emotion processing regions. When the teenagers were studied, however, their brains responded differently. The teen brains showed a stronger response to unfamiliar voices, triggered by intrigue and curiosity. The teen brain began processing rewards and assigning social value to the new voices more than familiar ones. The researchers concluded that this change helps teenagers develop socially and form connections with people outside of their families. As a teen matures, their brain naturally pays attention to new voices; it’s a way of growing up and becoming their own person. It may not be rebellion at all. It may simply be that they are becoming their own person.


So, how can teachers and parents leverage this neuroscience to guide their young?


What Can We Do about This?

Recognizing this reality enables caring adults to utilize the intrigue of a teen brain to connect with valuable yet unfamiliar voices. For a while, a teacher will have a unique, unfamiliar voice with students and can reinforce important values that a parent can only hope to communicate to their teen. As our kids grew into their teen years, for instance, we built close relationships with their teachers. One attended my daughter’s birthday party. One of my son’s teachers came to several of his community theatre shows. Those connections served a great purpose.


We were a team of unified adults investing in our teens. It really does take a village. 


When our kids turned 13, we arranged a team of mentors for them. Our daughter and I chose six women that would be short-term mentors for her that year. We picked people she was curious to get to know and who we (her parents) knew to be marvelous role models. In short, she thought they were “cool,” and we respected their lifestyle. That year, those unfamiliar voices reinforced important messages in her life. They got through to her with key values that we had taught her but felt less effective at relaying to her ourselves during those formative years. 


My son and I participated in a group of fathers and sons for a year and a half. Five dads and five boys, all 13 years old, met with significant people, including an athlete, business owner, football coach, pastor, and military officer. Once again, the interactions were meaningful and fresh to the ears and minds of those boys, even though their messages usually echoed the life lessons they’d heard in their earlier years. 


When our kids were in their teen years, we arranged trips for them to meet with someone who served in a profession in which they were interested. They had the opportunity to interview these adults they admired and draw upon their insights and wisdom. They became “spot mentors” for our kids, as we utilized their voices to reach our teens.


Since our teens’ brains are already on high alert to connect with new voices, why not take advantage of this? What’s most satisfying about this idea? You can be on both sides of this reality. Because I serve as a mentor and teacher for young people, my kids saw me meeting with several of their peers. One day, my daughter surprised me by sitting in on a discussion. Later, when I asked her why she listened in, she explained, “I guess I’m listening because I noticed that my friends tell me they like you and they listen to you. I don’t want to miss out on what they’re getting.” 


Let’s not miss this developmental milestone in students’ lives. Let’s leverage our village.



Assembling a Team of Voices to Reach Your Teens