Psychologist says mom’s voice heals better than text

My mother worked a lot when I was growing up. As a single parent of two small children, she often took on extra shifts as a nurse just to keep food on the table. Every day when I got home from school, one of the first things I would do was call my mother at work. Never once was she unhappy to hear from me, and the only time she did not come to the phone right away was when she was with a critical patient.

When I had especially exciting news, I couldn’t wait to call, because it felt like it didn’t really happen unless I shared the news with her. That relationship has lasted into my adulthood, and she’s still the first person I call when something great (or terrible) happens in my life.

So it made total sense to me — both as a mother and a daughter — when I read that psychologist Leslie Seltzer found that young girls who talked to their mothers experienced a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. According to Seltzer, the girls’ brains released a burst of oxytocin upon hearing their mother’s voice.

But why exactly does this happen? Is it simply that we are used to our mother’s tone? Does she always say just the thing we needed to hear, or is it more about the pitch of her voice?

Seltzer had 64 girls, ages 7–12, take a difficult math test. The girls were divided into four groups: “One group spoke to their mothers on the phone, some talked in person, others chatted via instant message, and the final group didn’t communicate with their moms at all.”

The girls who were able to speak to their mothers in person or on the phone experienced a decrease in cortisol levels and a spike in oxytocin levels. The text messages were less effective.

Seltzer thinks we are not only “fine-tuned to respond to our moms’ vocal intonations,” but mothers have the unique ability to detect anxiety in their child’s voice, so therefore can reassure them without the child having to verbally say they’re scared or worried.

We’ve all heard the studies of how premature babies are soothed by their mother’s voice, but it’s rarely stressed how effective a simple call to our mothers can be in lessening our own anxiety, or even how much we need to continue talking to our own kids as they grow older to help them in the same way.

I am seeing this with my own girls. Now that they’re teens, I realize how far an encouraging word — whether it’s directed to a chemistry test, a heartbreak, or an illness — can go. Often I find myself telling one of my girls that everything will be fine, that they shouldn’t worry, and walk them through their current situation. I am often shocked at how quickly it works. It’s not that I am alleviating their problem or giving the perfect advice.

On the contrary, the single biggest thing I do is simply listen and then try to help them realize what they already think or how they want to proceed.

It’s not always easy. Often it’s quite difficult and frustrating to stay cool in the midst of a teen breakdown, but I know how important it is for them to understand that they can work out their dilemmas through some self reflection, so while I listen, I don’t dictate. More than frequently, that simple gesture is more than enough.

Seltzer says that not only does a mother’s voice provide an instant oxytocin boost, but it lasts throughout the day, long after the phone call ends.

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, is a writer and editor living in New York City.