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Communicate With Your Teen

By Brenda Nixon

Teen: “Why are you mad?”
Parent: “I’m not mad.”
Teen: “Yes you are!”
Parent: “No I’m not.”
Teen: “You look mad to me.”

Does this sound familiar? Do squabbles with your teen begin like this or get off track with these 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. Then they respond to what they perceive as anger.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in 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 a series of faces.

All adult volunteers correctly identified the emotions. However, many of the teenagers misunderstood the emotions. When Dr. Todd examined the brain scans, she found her teen volunteers utilized a different part of their brain when looking at the facial expressions.

Teens see things differently
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.”

When you sense the tension rising
• Talk in a quieter voice. Adolescents can easily misinterpret your facial expression and rising volume as “being mad.” A lowered voice may help teens accurately identify your true emotion. With my daughters, I found that lowering my voice eased some tension.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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 teens. Perhaps next time you confront your teen the dialogue might go like this:

Teen: “Why are you mad?”
Parent: “This isn’t anger; this is fear.”
Teen: “Why are you afraid?”
Parent: “Because I love you and I sometimes fear for your safety. Love has many expressions.”

For more information and insight, read the interview with Dr. Todd at Frontline: “Inside the Teen Brain

© Brenda Nixon

Brenda Nixon is a writer, speaker and educator on child development and guidance. She is the author of Parenting Power in the Early Years, focusing on raising a child from birth to age 5. Brenda lives in Ohio with her husband, two daughters, a miniature dachshund and a fat cat.


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