A toddler falls. She lands on her knee and inspects it. And then—this is the crucial step—she looks to her parent. “Whatever’s going on with your face dictates what happens next,” says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author. If the parent’s look indicates all is well, all will usually be well. But if the parent looks frightened, tears often ensue.
When children are in moments of exasperation and pain later in life, as teens, parents may forget this dynamic. But teens can use this sort of reassurance too, “so that when they’re having a big powerful experience, we, at least with our faces … transmit confidence that it’s probably okay, without dismissing” the problem, Damour says.
Speaking on a panel Monday evening with Damour at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the Harvard brain-development expert Leah Somerville provided some additional context about the landscape of teens’ emotions. In addition to experiencing “higher highs [and] lower lows,” Somerville said, teens are also adjusting to the novelty of having more complex, sometimes mixed, emotions. “This is also something that adults experience, but the complexity that’s new to adolescents is something that they sometimes struggle to make sense of,” Somerville explained. “This can create confusion or a lack of full understanding or insight into what one is actually feeling.”