Health and Wellness

This is the best tone of voice parents should use to motivate their kids, researchers say

UMuller | Twenty20

The tone that a parent uses when telling their kid to do something can go a long way.

When mothers use a tone that's supportive rather than controlling, teens are more likely to follow through and have success with the task at hand, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Developmental Psychology.

Researchers from Cardiff University tested two styles of speaking that have been shown to motivate people in different ways: controlling and "autonomous supportive." A controlling tone is used to coerce someone to do something, whereas an autonomous supportive one encourages someone to make their own decisions.

The researchers had 1,000 British children ages 14 to 15 years listen to mothers of adolescents read 30 sentences that were meant to be motivational instructions. The statements included, "It's time now to go to school," "You will read this book tonight," and "You will do well on this assignment." 

(Since only mothers were used in the study, it's unclear whether the findings would be different for father-child relationships.)

Then, the teens completed a survey about how they would feel if their mother spoke to them like the women they just listened to. Not surprisingly, they said they were more willing to put effort into completing tasks that were communicated using a supportive tone. They also reported feeling closer to speakers who adopted this tone.

When spoken to with more controlling and neutral tones, the teens said they felt the opposite way, and even reported feeling negative emotions.

"If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it's important to remember to use supportive tones of voice," Netta Weinstein, an author of the study and a psychology lecturer at Cardiff University, said in a press release. "It's easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves."

Of course, tone is just one piece of the communication puzzle. The words a parent uses can also significantly affect a child's willingness to listen. A 2005 study, for example, found that specific words and phrases, such as "you should" and "you have to," can come off as controlling to adolescents. A more supportive way to frame instructions might be "I ask" or "I propose."

"These findings elucidate how mothers' spoken communications can impact adolescents, with implications for the quality of parent-child relationships, adolescents' well-being and engagement," the authors of the study wrote.

Past research has also shown that when parents give kids autonomy and support, they're more motivated in school, get better grades and feel more competent.

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