Study: Parents Frequently Misread Teens Emotions


A study of over 350 families in Spain who had children from two different schools asked parents, children, and adolescents to rate their happiness levels – and the results showed that parents frequently underestimate how happy their children are.

The study also revealed that parents over-estimate the happiness of their younger children, but assess their teenagers as much more glum than they actually are. Laura Donnelly of The Telegraph reports that researchers said the discrepancies could stem from parents giving children happiness scores based on their own feelings.

This is referred to as “egocentric bias,” and it means that parents often rely on their own emotions when they are assessing their family’s happiness levels. When parents have reached the limit with their moody teens, they assume their teens are unhappy when the teens are actually just grumpy, the research suggested.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Researchers believe it can provide valuable information that could actually improve parent-child relationships. Dr. Belen Lopaz-Perez, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Developmental and Social Psychology at Plymouth University and the author of the study, said:

“Studying informants’ discrepancies and the relationship between parents’ and children’s self-reports on happiness is vital to determine whether parental report is valid.”

Not only can misunderstandings between parents and their children occur when there is an inability to correctly read a child’s happiness, but the proper emotional support to attend to a child’s needs may not be given. But a study in 2013 found that 183 arguments occur per year between the average teenage girl and her mother, along with 164 door slammings, 257 fights with siblings, and 127 fights with friends.

Other studies have found that there may be biological reasons for some adolescent behavior, particularly when it comes to sleep patterns. Research done at Oxford University discovered that students do better in class in the afternoon because their “body clocks” are programmed two hours later than the “clocks” of the rest of the population.

Some scientific evidence shows that sulkiness could be attributed to adolescent hormonal changes., and tests have shown that the ability to empathize is not fully developed until a child reaches adulthood. A study that scanned the brains of teenagers, produced at Cambridge University, found that teens rarely use the part of the brain that analyzes the emotions and thoughts of others.

Raychelle Cassada Lohmann MS, LPC says in Psychology Today that one emotion parents may see in their teens, but not understand, is stress.  While stress is a normal reaction to pressure, once the stressor is removed most people can go back to a calmer state. Lohmann says about 8% of teenagers 13 to 18 suffer from anxiety, which the result of chronic and prolonged periods of stress. Unfortunately, this anxiety can leave an adolescent feeling he or she is destined to “live a life of doom and gloom.”

Whether stressed out or suffering from normal teenage angst, parents and kids can benefit from several suggestions, says Lohmann. Eating in a healthful way and taking care of their bodies will help teens keep a sense of balance, and helping teens establish a bedtime routine that includes relaxing and unwinding to prepare them for sleep can help. And, although it may be difficult in some instances, parents need to get creative in the ways they encourage their teenagers to exercise.