It’s a scenario we’re all familiar with: teens having a minor disagreement quickly and suddenly descend into a shouting match, or something even more serious – all over almost nothing. Conversely, your teen can easily tell the difference between when you’re sharing a joke with them and when you mean business. But it turns out this lack of ability to understand their peers could be out of their control, with a new study finding teenagers find it difficult to understand one another’s tone of voice.
The results of the study, published recently in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, explained that 13- to 15-year-olds lack the ability to understand how someone is feeling based on their tone of voice. As adults, it’s hard to imagine not realising someone is annoyed or happy or angry – but teens are still clueless.
“Our results suggest that teenagers have not yet reached maturity in either their ability to identify vocal emotions, or to express them,” said Michelle Morningstar, the paper’s lead author. Michelle conducted the research while completing her PhD at McGill University in the USA.
“This means that teenagers face quite a challenge in their social spheres: they must interpret poorly expressed cues with immature recognition skills,” she continued. “Understanding how we learn emotional communication skills will be important to help teenagers who struggle socially.”
The researchers conducting the study played 140 different recordings of voices belonging to adult and child actors to teens aged 13 to 15, as well as adults aged 18 to 30. The actors repeated generic phrases such as, “I can’t believe you just did that,” while invoking a variety of different emotions. Those listening were then asked to nominate which feeling they thought the speaker was feeling. They had five emotional options to choose from – anger, disgust, fear, happiness and sadness – and two social expressions to choose from – affiliation (friendliness) or hostility (meanness).
The results showed something remarkable. While adults had no trouble understanding the emotion being portrayed by speakers, and teens understood the emotions of adults, teens did have trouble understanding what emotion other teens were feeling as they spoke.
Michelle Morningstar hypothesised in her earlier research that one reason for this could be that teens are not as able as adults to express their emotions via their voice. Adults have become better at deciphering those hidden emotions, but other teens are still just learning.
Senior author on the paper Melanie Dirks says it’s nothing for parents to worry about.
“Parents shouldn’t get too discouraged by these findings,” she said. “Although what we showed is that it takes longer for teens to recognise and identify the feelings of others than had previously been thought to be the case, our research suggests that it may just be a matter of brain development – that things will come with time.”