Teenagers have a reputation for being irritable, but the next time your kid complains about an argument with a friend, consider this: It may have nothing to do with who said what and everything to do with the teens misinterpreting their peers’ tone of voice.
In a study from McGill University in Montreal, participants listened to audio recordings of simple phrases read in different emotions. Adults correctly interpreted the feelings of teens and adults. And teens ages 13 to 15 could understand the emotions in adult voices. But they weren’t so well-versed in reading their peers’ feelings.
According to the paper’s lead author, Michele Morningstar, teenagers are navigating new social experiences as their abilities to decode emotions are still developing. That can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, says Morningstar, who conducted the research while working on her Ph.D. in psychology at McGill.
The good news is that teens can develop the skills to better understand their peers. Here’s how parents can help.
Help Teens Prevent Misunderstandings
1. Spell it out.
Encourage teens to use clear words. “We’ve got to be explicit,” says Morningstar. “We can’t assume that the tone of voice should be enough. It just makes things easier if we are communicating more with our content than with our nonverbal cues.”
Teens’ immature ability to read emotions may be one reason that they love texting. Texting can create its own misunderstandings, but misinterpreting tone of voice isn’t an issue, says Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.
2. Talk about it.
When your teen is frustrated about an argument with a friend, ask some pointed questions that might prompt them to think about tone of voice. Morningstar suggests asking things like “Is there something about the way they said this that might help you understand how they were feeling?” and “How did you express yourself?”
Both Morningstar and Icard also recommend talking to teens about how their brains are working—and that they may not be able to accurately guess what their peers are feeling yet.
3. Give them grace.
It’ll be frustrating at times, but better communication skills will come as teens mature. “Give them time to gain that experience in their learning,” says Morningstar.