Nonverbal Communication with Adolescents

26 Oct
October 26, 2017

Did you know that 93% of communication is nonverbal?* A large percentage of that nonverbal communication comes through facial and tone of voice cues. What is surprising, however, is just how different the level of ability is in interpreting these nonverbal cues are when comparing adults and adolescents. Further, it probably explains a significant amount of the misunderstanding that can and does happen between adolescents and their parents.

At this point, it’s probably clear that I am a fan of Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent”. I blogged a review about it here, and then a follow up post on some of the neurobiology research they were exploring here. In their chapter entitled, “Why are you looking at me like that?,” they explore this topic of nonverbal cues and what the latest research is showing us about it.

Citing research from Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, they pointed out that while adults have a 90-100% success rate in interpreting the emotions and tone behind facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, adolescents only decipher them correctly about 50% of the time (Kindle location 1389).  Essentially, what the research shows is that adults interpret these cues by using the part of their brain where decision making and executive functions happen (the prefrontal cortex), while adolescents use the region of the brain where emotions are the dominating factor (the limbic system).

Where this is helpful for parents is in thinking through how we communicate with our adolescents. We cannot just assume they recognize the emotions or intent behind our words; 93% of communication is nonverbal, and teens misinterpret those cues half the time, which means they genuinely misunderstand us potentially almost half the time. We can’t change that; it’s biology. Their brains do not finish developing until around age 25. Instead, the Clarks recommend naming our emotions calmly. Let them know when you’re confused, worried, upset, etc., don’t just assume they know what you’re feeling when other adults would understand.

All that to say, if you’re a parent of kids of any age, or someone that works with young people. Get the book. It’s fascinating!

*All percentages and information in this post are drawn from the Clark’s book.

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