By Kathy Kuhl

Some children with learning challenges are highly attuned to emotion and can read faces with ease. For other children (and adults, for that matter), faces speak in a code they cannot break. But almost all of us—adults, teens, and children—can improve our ability to read faces.

Teens in particular struggle to read faces correctly,which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. A research team led by Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, showed how it is that teens read faces differently than adults.

Researchers gave teens and adults pictures of faces and asked them to identify the different emotions shown. The results included a surprising face: though adults correctly identified fear in faces 100% of the time, teens only recognized fear correctly half the time. Teens often misread fear as shock, anger, or other emotions.

The researchers scanned the teens and adults with MRI technology so researchers could see which part of the adults’ and teens’ brains were most active as they were reading faces. The adults chiefly used the prefrontal area, the part of the brain associated with planning and judgment. But the teens used a lower part of the brain, associated with emotion and gut responses. In other words, the teens were less accurate, and responded more emotionally, too. You can easily imagine the consequences for conversations between parents and teens, or among teens.

How can we help?

Reading faces requires understanding emotion

Talk about emotion. Accept it as part of life.  I recommend John Gottman’s book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, which I reviewed here. This book has excellent advice on how to teach the language of emotion, how to help children deal with emotion constructively, and how to become aware of and to improve your own ways of dealing with emotion.

Tools to help you and your kids improve your ability to read faces

  • Greater Good Science Center of the University of California at Berkley offers a free online body language quiz. It shows you twenty faces and asked you to name the emotion expressed on each. * Then it explains the clues, with clear notes that helped me learn more about the subtler differences. I suspect this website could be used to help folks improve their ability to read faces. But clever test takers may want to look for a way to scramble the images, so they cannot get away with memorizing the sequence.
  • Younger children can benefit from watching the Transporters DVD. In it, 15 short lessons tell stories reminiscent of the Thomas the Tank Engine tales. (They even have the same narrator, Kerry Shale.) But each vehicle has a human face, so kids can better see lips purse, mouths widen, eyebrows lift or lower, and so on. Each lesson has two video quizzes, and there are more quizzes grouped by many different emotions. The publisher particularly recommends it for children on the autism spectrum, and donates profits to support the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University.
  • Dr. Jed Baker’s books have been recommended to me by homeschoolers, particularly The Social Skills Picture Book and The Social Skills Picture Book for High School and Beyond. 

What tools to you use to help your child or teen read faces better? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

*Thanks to Ken Sande and his RW360.org blog for pointing out the Great Good body language quiz. Ken’s writing on developing wisdom in relationships are consistently helpful.