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Teenagers are less likely to do their homework if their mothers tell them to in a controlling tone

Teenagers are less likely to do their homework if their mothers tell them to in a controlling tone ‘because it takes away their sense of choice’

  • Teenagers listened to the same set of instructions delivered in different tones
  • They were more likely to do their homework when asked in an encouraging way
  • Coaxes compliance when they have an ‘increasing desire to act independently’  

Teenagers are less likely to do their homework if their mothers speak to them in a ‘controlling’ tone, research suggests.

Scientists from Cardiff University analysed how 1,000 adolescents reacted to the same set of instructions when given out by women with varying tones of voice.

They found the teenagers were more willing to do their homework when they were spoken to in an encouraging way. 

Supportive tones are thought to give teenagers a ‘sense of choice’, even if they are being told to do something.

This may coax them into complying during a time when they have an ‘increasing desire to act independently’ and be ‘self-reliant’, the scientists said.

Teenagers are less likely to do their homework if their mothers speak to them in a ‘controlling’ tone ‘because it takes away their sense of choice’, research suggests (stock)

‘If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it’s important to remember to use supportive tones of voice,’ lead author Dr Netta Weinstein said. 

‘It’s easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves.

‘Adolescents likely feel more cared about and happier, and as a result they try harder at school, when parents and teachers speak in supportive rather than pressuring tones of voice.’ 

Parents often try to motivate their children to behave in a certain way, the scientists wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Encouraging them to do their homework is a ‘common challenge’, with research suggesting this can influence how well youngsters do at school.

However, ‘very little research’ has looked into the role tone of voice plays in compliance.

To learn more, the scientists analysed 486 boys and 514 girls aged between 14 and 15.

The teenagers were put into two groups where they heard identical messages spoken by women with adolescent children. 

Thirty messages were delivered, including ‘it’s time now to go to school’, ‘you will read this book tonight’ and ‘you will do well on this assignment’. 

The tone used was either controlling, supportive or neutral. 

Each of the teenagers were asked how they would feel if their own mother had spoken to them like this.

Results revealed those who heard motivational statements in a controlling tone reacted ‘undesirably’.

In contrast, supportive tones brought about ‘positive reactions’. This is compared to motivational messages delivered in a neutral way. 

Encouraging tones are said to be ‘inviting’ and suggest a ‘sense of choice’ for the listener even if they are being told to do something, the scientists wrote. 

Teenagers may be particularly susceptible to this because they are ‘sensitive to feeling controlled given their increasing desire to act independently and become self-reliant’.

‘These results nicely illustrate how powerful our voice is and that choosing the right tone to communicate is crucial in all of our conversations,’ Dr Weinstein said. 

The scientists plan to investigate whether tone of voice influences physiological responses, like heart rate, and how long these effects may last. 


The linguistic and social judgements we make when hearing speech are based on intonation. 

Just as we have a mental image of what an apple looks like, we form mental representations of others’ personalities according to the acoustic qualities of their voices.

Prosody is a term which refers to the patterns which can be found in the human voice during speech.

It comes from the sounds of syllables and how they work with and against one another to provide subconscious signals. 

For example, intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm are all very important in accurately portraying a message to other people. 

Prosody is used to turn a statement into a question, show sarcasm and irony and also people can detect a person’s mindset through their voice. 

Social groups are adept at detecting these signals and can understand the subtleties of conversation through intonation and emphasis.

How this has evolved is believed to have stemmed from the very origin of language.

Charles Darwin argued that all of world’s languages may come from a type of singing, which our ape ancestors used to voice their emotions.

Research involving ‘tone-deaf’ people has found that Darwin was right and that music and language both evolved from a common protolanguage.

Language and music use the same part of the brain and this shows that developing and understanding the flexible and fluid prosody of human language is an evolved trait common to all humans. 


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