Parents tend to think their tweens are happier than they actually are, and here’s why they don’t see the signs. (Photo: shalamov/iStock)
Do you know how happy your children are? It’s a question recently posed to a group of parents by researchers working on a study, who were hoping to get a better understanding of how well moms and dads could read their kids’ emotions.
As it turns out, not very well. The researchers determined that parents of tweens between ages 10 and 11 significantly overestimated how happy their offspring were, while parents of adolescents between ages 15 and 16 underestimated their teens’ well-being.
The study, published June 30 in the online edition of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, looked at 357 children and adolescents as well as their parents. The researchers asked the young study subjects to self-assess their own well-being. They then had their parents rate their sense of happiness as well as how happy they felt their kids were.
The results showed a discrepancy between the kids’ self-reported happiness and how happy their parents believed them to be, and that was true among the the 10-11 age range as well as the 15- and 16-year olds.
Interestingly, the parents’ happiness tended to mirror their perceived happiness of their kids—suggesting that parents view their children through their own “egocentric bias.” In other words, they rely on their own feelings to evaluate the feelings of other family members.
Parents who perceive their kids through their own rose-colored glasses aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. But the researchers make the case that egocentric bias can leave relationships between parents and children more stressful, and it might even put kids’ mental health in jeopardy.
“Being unable to read children’s happiness appropriately may increase misunderstanding between parents and children/adolescents, which has been shown to have negative consequences for parent–child relationships,” states the study. “Furthermore, parents might not be able to provide the appropriate emotional support or attend to their children’s needs accurately.”
The results might come as a surprise to parents who pride themselves on being closely connected to their kids emotionally. But they don’t surprise child development experts, who say parents often misread youth emotions.
“Parents might judge their 10- and 11-year-olds to be happier than they really are because at this age, kids are in a latency stage, and their emotions have gone underground,” Beverly Hills psychotherapist Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. No parent wants to think their tween is depressed, so they assume they are happier than they generally are, she says.
As for the happiness levels of teens, Walfish believes that many parents misread adolescent rebellion. “Kids who are 15 and 16 are separating themselves from their parents by rebelling, and parents see this as defiance, which they assume is rooted in depression,” says Walfish. But defiance is normal at this age, and kids who seem angry and emotional can actually be perfectly happy.