Adolescents’ Perceptions

In my last post, I invited readers to consider the difference between being firm and being angry. The recommendation was that parents focus on ways to be firm in terms of voice tone and body while at the same time not attempting to overwhelm children with angry, threatening voice tones and body language.

 What tone is your voice?

Noteworthy is an interesting caveat to this concept, something I learned when studying the season of life called “adolescence.”

It turns out that there is a time when adolescents’ perception of voice tones shifts so they are no longer able to differentiate a calm, firm statement from an angry expression.

This website, contains an article by Carolyn Penniman, entitled Understanding Brain Development Is Useful When Handling Conflict With Teens: Misperception Of Emotion By Teens Is Due To Changes During Brain Development. It describes the work of  neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd from  the National Institute of Mental Health.  Dr. Giedd has studied the development of the adolescent brain for more than 20 years.

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and GrandmotherDevelopment

Dr. Giedd has found that there is tremendous growth in the brain during adolescence 

He cites, “New circuits are wired as the brain produces an overabundance of brain cell branches that become more efficient by pruning those that are not used. While this process is taking place, different parts of the brain are activated in response to experience, increasing the urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. Hormonal changes due to sexual development, in addition to stress hormones like cortisol, contribute to teens misreading emotional signals. While adult brains use the prefrontal cortex, considered the executive center of the brain for making rational decisions, the teen brain’s amygdala is activated when interpreting emotional expressions. The amygdala is the anger center of the brain, and teens often mistake fear or surprise for anger. A teen may feel that a parent is yelling, when they are actually speaking in a calm, firm tone of voice. They may interpret a look of disapproval to mean “I hate you”. These perceptions may result in escalation of the disagreement, compounded by accusations and frustration.”

[For more information: National Institute of Mental Health ]

This can explain why some young people accuse parents of yelling at them when parents are speaking in a normal, calm voice. These teens are not trying to be difficult or unreasonable. The way their brains interpret words and voice tones causes distortions as their still-under-construction brains try to make sense of the world.

This information makes it even more important for parents to use as calm a voice as they can when disciplining and to not take it personally or think their teenager is being overly dramatic or having a hearing problem when that teenager says, or even yells, “Why are you yelling at me!”

A helpful mantra for parents to keep in mind when they are disciplining is that discipline should not be an emotional event.

Being mindful with regard to one’s tone of voice is an important consideration along with sensitivity when children or adolescents become upset, because what they hear projected is not exactly what a parent is attempting to project.

Rather than becoming defensive, parents can acknowledge what their teen is experiencing and can insert some reassurance: “It sounded to you like I was yelling at you and that didn’t feel good. I was trying to say… I didn’t mean this to sound like I am angry, rather I wanted you to know that this is something important for you to understand.”

Parents also need to keep in mind that some children are much more sensitive temperamentally to not only what their parents say, but how they say it. Sometimes even very sensitive babies can cry if a parent uses a loud voice, whether it is in anger, or even when expressing exuberance or joy.

Invitation to reflect:

  1.  If you are the parent of a teen or even pre-teen, have you noticed times when your child accused you of yelling when you are not yelling? How did that make you feel?
  2. Does this information provide some explanation and even reassurance? How does it change how you feel towards a young person who is perceiving anger when in fact you are speaking calmly but firmly?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network