Parental criticism hurts: A glimpse inside the adolescent brain

Many families agree that adolescents try their best to separate from their families and do as they please, but they are more sensitive to their parents’ opinions than they may seem. The adolescent brain reacts strongly to parental criticism or praise. These are the results of a study by a research group of psychologists and neuroscientists from Leiden University.

The study involved 63 adolescents from 12 to 18 years. During an MRI scan of their brains, they were shown compliments, neutral feedback or criticism of their personality that seemed to come from their parents. They would read comments on a screen such as: “Your father thinks you’re mean,” or “Your mother thinks you’re intelligent”

After each point of praise or criticism, the adolescents indicated their mood. Unsurprisingly, their mood improved after receiving a compliment and deteriorated after receiving a negative comment, particularly when this criticism did not match their self-image. Not only did the parental comments do something to the adolescents’ self-confidence, but the adolescent brain reacted very differently to compliments than to criticism, as the scans showed. Criticism activated regions of the brain that are involved in processing emotions and pain, regions that are also activated when people experience physical pain. Both criticism and compliments cause activity in areas of the brain that are related to social cognition, such as understanding other people’s emotions and intentions.


The researchers explained that what the results of the scans show is that criticism really does seem to hurt. This pain does not seem to be less in adolescents with a relatively more-positive self-image and who feel their parents are warmer.

Studies like these help to understand what parental compliments and criticism do to adolescents and to make parents aware of the impact of their words.  In addition, this adds to the understanding of mental health problems in adolescents, such as depression, low self-esteem and sensitivity to rejection, which all play a leading role.






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