"As adolescents move through middle school and high school, some adults expect them to automatically make mature decisions, as if these external events [puberty] magically grant adolescents adult-like thinking skills.  This is a recipe for future conflict; adults become disappointed and teenagers feel misunderstood..."  To read more on the article by Terence & Eileen Houlihan, please click here

Terence Houlihan speaking to high school teachers in Akron, OH, 2013.

Entries in facial expressions (2)


"When teens feel like you "get" them, you've "got" them" -Terence Houlihan

-By Terence J. Houlihan

In my conversations with parents of teenagers over the years, I've heard a common (and real) concern: "I feel like I'm losing my daughter/son."  I could do a quick piece on cognitive restructuring and inform parents that they are not losing their child; the relationship is changing and they are no longer parenting a small child.  That is very true, and accepting that reality takes time, but there are some practices adults and parents can put into place immediately if they want to improve their relationships with teens or at least, understand more about them.

One of the greatest sources of frustration in any relationship is the belief that the person to whom we are talking doesn't understand our perspective.  We can explain our position this way or thay way...we may even have another person explain it for us.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.  Often times, this is exactly how teens perceive their parents and other adults when it comes to understanding them: they just don't "get" them.  And this may not simply be because the adult lacks empathy; sometimes it is because the teen fails to explain themselves, for fear that they will be judged.  But there may be another underlying reason.

Research shows that most of our communication takes place in the context of tone and body language: it is not so much what we say but how we say it.  Our facial expressions can speak volumes.  When it comes to trying to communicate with teens, things become even more complex. Neuroscientists like Dr. Yurgelun-Todd of the University of Utah found that teens use a different part of their brain when reading facial expressions.  While conducting research at Harvard in 2006, Yurgelun-Todd discovered that teens identified facial expressions quite differently than adults.  So, while adults may read a facial expression as fear, teens may see anger.  In the context of a conversation, while a parent or teacher is trying to communicate disappointment to an adolescent, that teenager may react quite defensively.  Add in the fact that teens experience emotions 2-3 times greater than adults...you can see where I'm going with this.

Whenever I work with parents, counselors and teachers, I stress the importance of trying to remove judgement from any conversation with adolescents. Although we may not judge them with our words, our faces may say something else; so it is crucial to be mindful of whether our eyebrow is up or we shake our head in disapproval. Even with all of this, they may be misreading us, so I invite adults to following up their comments with, "do you understand what I'm saying?" or it may be more beneficial to ask that 14 year-old if they could sum up what you just said to them.  

This is no easy task, especially when what you're hearing might be very upsetting, but if we want to hear more from our teens, learn more from them and understand more about them, we have to let them know we are interested.  And this learning is rarely on our terms: teens will open up when they are ready...maybe at 11:30 pm on a Monday night after an exhausting day.

When teens feel heard and are understood, free of judgement, they will feel like you get them...and then you've got them.  I now begin most of my presentations with this simple quote.



School Connectedness

-by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

In my role as a school counselor, one of the most common expressions I heard from adolescents and children was, “The teacher hates me.”  Initially, my instinct was to de-escalate the emotional response and attempt to have the student logically analyze how they came to that belief.

Sometimes, they would see that they misinterpreted something from the teacher, other times, they were probably just projecting their own dislike for the teacher, and others, they just couldn’t get past a “look” they saw on the teacher’s face.

In 2004, the CDC reported that “students who feel connected to their school are … more likely to have better academic achievement…”  One of the influencing factors on whether or not a student feels connected to their school lies in their relationships with the adults in the school building.  Students typically report that the way they are greeted when the first enter a classroom is indicative of a positive relationship with a teacher.  In fact, children and adolescents will claim that they perform better in a class if they think a teacher likes them.

If you’re raising an eyebrow to this, think about your own experiences in working for a supervisor: chances are the more you felt they liked you, the better you performed.

What is crucial for educators to understand is that children and adolescents do not use the same part of their brain (as adults do) to read facial expressions.  Without going into a long discussion on the nature of adolescent brain development, scientists were able to identify that while reading facial expressions, adults use the more mature, logical part of the brain referred to as the pre-frontal cortex, but adolescents and children use their unrefined, emotionally responsive limbic system.  Research shows that time after time, children and teenagers interpret a facial expression of anger on the faces of the adults who were intending to show disappointment or shock.  This could help to explain why situations in the classroom can quickly escalate without the teacher saying a word.

So, when focusing on classroom management or building school connectedness, the adults in a school need to be conscious of what they’re saying with their bodies and faces, or better yet, they could probably put words into their expressions.  Rather than looking “disappointed,” it is better to verbally tell the student just that. 

Then again, why not smile at them when they enter the building or the classroom?