How Well Can You Read Your Teen?

Whether your relationship with your teenage son or daughter is close or strained, pretty much all parents struggle at some point with “reading” their child’s feelings accurately and getting them to open up. Research makes clear that parents who talk to their school-age and teenage kids are likelier to prevent addiction from taking hold. But every mom and dad knows how hard it can be connect — or even to get a sense of what’s going through your child’s mind on a given day.

“The face is our best window on how someone is feeling moment to moment,” says Paul Ekman, PhD, professor emeritis of psychology from the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings to Improve Emotional Life. “It not only reveals the feelings that person is aware of feeling but feelings the person may not have recognized in themselves.” And, adds Dr. Ekman, the face reveals emotions the person may be attempting to conceal from the person they’re talking to. Simply put, he says, “it’s an extremely valuable source of emotion, and to acknowledge some of [your child’s expressions] can help build trust and understanding.” Dr. Ekman has long been a leading researcher in nonverbal communication — how we express emotions without saying a word. (His work on reading faces was the basis of the Lie To Me TV series, in fact.) Nonverbal communication makes up an estimated 60% of all human communication. Ekman has found that around the world — even in tribes he visited in the 1950s in New Guinea that were completely cut off from civilization and media — human beings share core, universal expressions of emotion and that our faces express these emotions in three basic ways:

  • Macro expressions, such as happiness, sadness, surprise and anger, are the major facial expressions, appearing on the face for three to four seconds.
  • Micro expressions, as Ekman dubs them, are much more subtle feelings that flash across a person’s face. Sometimes, the person isn’t even aware of the feeling behind the flash because the emotion is just evolving. These are emotional clues that show on the face for just one to two seconds, says Ekman.
Micro Expression Clip

Do you know what micro expression this teenager is showing? She’s feeling disappointment, says Paul Ekman, PhD. Expressions that flash across the face, called micro or mini expressions, hold important information worth paying attention to. Video courtesy of Paul Ekman©.

  • Mini or subtle expressions are even quicker and appear on only part of the face such as one corner of the mouth or on one cheek. Ekman says these subtle expressions are often an attempt to conceal true emotion.

Simply put, reading all three kinds of facial expressions could be an untapped opportunity to understand  what’s really going on with your teen and create a clearer connection.

Let’s Face It

Even if you pride yourself on being able to read others well, translating micro expressions isn’t often so easy to learn. “Most people can read a macro expression that’s on the face for two to three seconds without any trouble whatsoever,” says Ekman. However, “it is the micro and mini expressions that more than 90% of people miss without having had any instruction or feedback.” And those subtle nuances are what can make the difference between recognizing whether your child is concealing difficult, and potential worsening, emotions such as fear, sadness, depression and anxiety that may require professional help and also put him or her at increased risk for substance abuse and addiction.

How Well Can You Read Your Teen?Perhaps surprisingly, parents are typically no better at reading their kids when it comes to understanding their micro expressions, Ekman says. Even though we know our children so well, this doesn’t necessarily equip us to accurately read what flashes across their faces: “We don’t really learn the mistakes we make [reading emotions] to get better,” he says, noting that ordinary life doesn’t “train” us to improve this skill. (The Ekman Group offer a micro expression training tool for families. Called RE³, it’s designed to help parents identify what their children may be concealing on their countenances, including emotions a child might not even be aware of feeling. The tool also provides scenarios in which parents can learn how to respond to these fleeting shows of emotion so that frustration and arguments don’t flare between parents and their teens.)

Does it even matter whether or not you’re not catching your child’s expressions? After all, teens are well-known for having ever-changing moods. It does matter, says Ekman – a lot. “Missing a micro or mini expression means you’ve missed an opportunity to learn more about what’s going on that the person is on the verge of feeling or is concerned about acknowledging,” he explains. “To miss it is to miss an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, but it’s not a disaster.” On the other hand, adds Ekman, “missing a macro expression — an expression that’s on the face for a second or two, or perhaps as long three or four — if you miss that, then you miss what a person is aware of feeling, and then it may cause an increase in distance.”

How to Better Read Your Teen’s Emotions

So how can you improve your skill at reading your children’s macro, micro and mini expressions so you can help them better manage their emotions? Here’s what Ekman suggests (though the advice can apply to many others in your life, too):

  • Engage with your child. Too often, busy lives mean our conversations with kids happen in the car, shuttling to or from an activity, or across the kitchen during hectic evenings. That makes it all the harder to catch macro or micro expressions on your teen. Make an effort to be in the moment together, face-to-face and truly listening to your child’s words and expressions.
  • Don’t make it about you. To accurately read emotions, you need to filter out how you’re feeling about a situation. Parents’ own frustration, anger and fatigue can color the perceptions of how others feel – even our own offspring.
  • Watch your teen’s entire face. Micro expressions flash by fast, stresses Ekman. If you’re not watching, you’ll miss them. But even sneakier are mini/subtle expressions, since these are even smaller and limited to one area of the face. like one side of the mouth, one part of the temple or one part of the browline. These blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reveals may mark an emotion that’s just emerging, or they could be what Ekman calls a “leakage” of a feeling your child is aware of but wants to hide from you.
  • Consider more than the context.  It’s very important, says Ekman, to think about a situation and how your child might feel, but not to assume you know how she’s feeling. For example, let’s say you tell your teenage daughter that she can’t go out with her friends because she has to babysit a younger sibling. You’d assume she’d feel sad or angry, right? But that might not be the case. She could feel something else completely, like contempt, disappointment — even relief. “Very often, the context will let us know what the likely emotion is, but sometimes a person has an emotional reaction that doesn’t fit the context, so you’re better off to not only recognize the context but the emotion that’s being displayed,” he says.
  • Respond to emotions when you see them. If you notice a macro or micro expression, try to name it — frustration, anger  regret, sadness, anxiety, joy, among others. This validates to your child that you understand him or her and builds trust. You can simply say, “You seem frustrated,” instead of, “You’re feeling frustrated,” so  your son or daughter knows that you’re trying to follow his or her unspoken feelings, but at the same time you’ll create a little wiggle room if your face-reading skills need work.
  • Don’t lecture. The last thing you should do if you’ve picked up on your child’s facial cues is to deliver maxims such as: “We all have to learn how to deal with disappointment sooner or later” or “It’s too bad, but that’s the way life works; get used to it.” These types of responses are likely to just add kerosene to an already flammable conversation with a teen.
  • If your teen is angry, step back (sometimes). When the dominant macro expression is anger, address it. But if your child has a micro expression of anger or rage and you already have a strained relationship, you might be better off not addressing this micro expression because your child might not even be aware that he or she is feeling this way. But do always address macro expressions of anger, says Ekman. Otherwise, by ignoring these outbursts of fury or frustration, you might risk increasing their anger and any feelings of distance from you.

For more information on improving your skills at reading micro expressions, whether in teens or other family members, check out the Responding Effectively to Emotional Expressions (RE³ Family), ($69), available online at the Paul Ekman Group website:

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