Study: Teens Struggle to Interpret Tone of Voice Accurately
Teens are not known for their even-keel reactions. But research into teen development is helping adults to understand why — and recast these moments as life learning opportunities. A new study has found that teens struggle to accurately match tone of voice with the implied emotion — making blow ups over innocuous statements more likely. Every parent of a teen is nodding their heads right now.
“Our results suggest that teenagers have not yet reached maturity in either their ability to identify vocal emotions, or to express them,” said Michele Morningstar, the study’s first author, who conducted the research while completing her PhD in psychology at McGill University. “This means that teenagers face quite a challenge in their social spheres: They must interpret poorly expressed cues with immature recognition skills. Understanding how we learn emotional communication skills will be important to help teenagers who struggle socially.”
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Morningstar and colleagues conducted a small study that asked young teens (ages 13 to 15) and adults (18 to 30) to separately listen to recordings of child and adult actors saying the same phrases with different emotional inflection. For instance, the phrase “I can’t believe you just did that,” was recorded in varying tones to convey the five basic emotions — anger, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness — by both a child actor and an adult. Participants were then asked to identify the emotion each statement conveyed, as well as the general ‘vibe’ of the recording — whether it was friendly or hostile.
Adults had no difficulty matching tone of voice to the correct emotion implied when listening to recordings of their peers, and little difficulty when listening to recordings of children. Teens, however, while identifying most adults’ tones correctly, struggled when it came to listening to their peers’ voices. Morningstar suggests this gap could be due to the recordings themselves — children may have more difficulty producing recognizable emotions with their voices.
Which means teens’ tone of voice may not be fully accurate in expressing their emotions, furthering the opportunity for miscommunication on all sides. Development during the teen years is all about building social skills, and part of that is learning to recognize implicit communication. Teens may get it right with their parents’ voices (though they often do not), but misunderstandings over tone of voice may be part and parcel of teen-to-teen expression and interpretation — and teen-to-parent — and part of maturing social skills.
“Parents shouldn’t get too discouraged by these findings,” said Melanie Dirks, an associate professor of psychology at McGill, and the study’s senior author. “Although what we showed is that it takes longer for teens to recognize 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.”