Parenting may not come with a handbook, but at least we have science. A new study published in the Journal Developmental Psychology looked at two common speaking styles used by parents — controlling and autonomous supportive — to find which one is more effective at motivating teens to follow through and be successful in completing tasks.
Researchers at Cardiff University tested the different styles with 1,000 children ages 14 and 15. Then, mothers of adolescents delivered 30 identical messages in either an autonomy-supportive, controlling, or neutral tone of voice. These so-described motivational statements included “You will do well on this assignment,” and “It’s time now to go to school.”
A press release from the university describes an autonomy-supportive expression as conveying “a sense of encouragement and support for listeners’ sense of choice and opportunity for self-expression [where as] expressions of control impose pressure and attempt to coerce or push listeners to action.”
The researchers surveyed the teens after the task-giving portion of the experiment. They asked how they would feel if their mothers spoke to them in the same tone as the speakers. Not surprisingly the children showed a higher willingness to follow through when spoken to in an autonomy-supportive tone.
Additionally, the respondents conveyed feeling a sense of closeness and positive emotions when tasks were communicated in the supportive tone. Teens in the controlling set reported the opposite feeling.
What can parents take from this?
The findings may not be surprising to many parents. But as the first study to look into the implications of tone in teen communication, it offers a good reminder.
“These results nicely illustrate how powerful our voice is and that choosing the right tone to communicate is crucial in all of our conversations,” co-author Professor Paulmann of the University of Essex, said in the press release.
Lead author Dr. Netta Weinstein from Cardiff University, added, “If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it’s important to remember to use supportive tones of voice. It’s easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves.”
Dr. Weinstein also suggested these findings can be useful to teachers.
“Adolescents likely feel more cared about and happier,” she said. “As a result, they try harder at school when teachers speak in supportive rather than pressuring tones of voice.”
Next, the researchers aim to take their learnings about tone of voice to motivate teens further. Set to be investigated: how tone can impact physiological responses like heart rates or skin conductance responses, and how long-lasting these effects can last.