Face Off: Communication Tips
for Parents of Teens
By Brenda Nixon
“Dad, why are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad, son.”
“Yes you are!”
“No I’m not.”
“You look mad to me.”
Sound familiar? Do squabbles with your teen begin like this or
get sidetracked with these mistaken accusations? There are many
reasons parents and teens argue but consider this; sometimes it’s
because adolescents don’t “read” facial cues
correctly. Often teens translate a parent’s worried or panic
expression as anger or something else. Then they respond to that
perceived emotion. Thus the vicious cycle of misunderstanding
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of neuropsychology and cognitive
neuroimaging, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts, suggests
that the teen brain actually works differently than an adult’s
when processing emotional information from external stimuli. In
her landmark study mapping the differences between the brains
of adults and teens, Dr. Todd put volunteers through a magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) machine and monitored how their brains
responded to a series of pictures. The volunteers were asked to
discern an emotion based on the facial expression in each picture.
All adult volunteers correctly identified the emotions. However,
many of the teenagers misread and misidentified the emotions based
on facial expression. When Dr. Todd examined the brain scans,
she discovered her teen volunteers even utilized a different part
of their brain when looking at the faces.
In terms of communication, adults can look at fearful faces and
correctly identify them as such. But teens don’t see them
the same way. This means your daughter probably reads your intended
expressions differently than you, and she’s responding based
on her perception. Carol Maxym, Ph.D., author of Teens in
Turmoil writes, “One of the most common problems that
parents and teens experience is a gulf in understanding.”
So, what’s a parent to do when you sense the tension rising?
1. Talk in a quieter voice. Adolescents can
easily misinterpret facial expression and rising volume as “being
mad.” A lowered voice may help in accurately identifying
your true emotion. With my daughters, I found that my hushed voice
brought relief to an escalating situation.
2. Teach teens. If you’re annoyed, say
so and if you’re feeling panic identify that too. Naming
your emotions will help teens learn about you and to identify
their feelings too.
3. Be there for them. Teens must know you’re
always available to listen, support, and give advice but this
doesn’t mean you’ll try to run their life.
4. Have a sense of humor. Teens are like toddlers
in big bodies. You don’t need to excuse their behavior but
don’t expect them to act like adults…they are not.
Sometimes applying brain research to parenting can help us better
communicate with our kids. Perhaps next time you confront your
teen, part of the dialogue might go like this:
“Dad, why are you mad?”
“This isn’t anger, this is fear.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Your safety. Because I love you, I worry about you. Love
has many expressions.”
©Copyright 2005, Brenda Nixon.
Brenda Nixon (www.brendanixon.com)
is a writer, speaker and educator on child development and guidance.
Her book, Parenting Power
in the Early Years on raising a child from birth to age five
can be ordered at amazon.com or bookstores nationwide. Brenda lives
in Ohio with her husband, two daughters, a miniature dachshund,
and a fat cat.
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