Teenagers Are Happier Than Their Parents Think

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1950s 1960s multiple exposure girl going from happy to sad three facial expressions looking at camera
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The teenage years are known for many things, but happiness is not usually one of them. And yet some new research, published online this week in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, has some good news for parents worried about their adolescents, who suddenly seem incapable of communicating unless it’s via Snapchat — teens are probably happier than their parents believe them to be.  

Belen Lopez-Perez and Ellie L. Wilson, both psychologists at Plymouth University in the U.K., recruited 357 children and teenagers (and their parents), and had each one answer two happiness questionnaires. The parents answered the surveys both for themselves and for their children, and their results showed that parents tended to underestimate how happy their 16- and 17-year-olds were. On a 10-point scale, for example, the parents estimated their teenagers’ happiness levels to be at about 5.5, but the teens themselves rated their happiness at about an 8.

Parents of younger children, interestingly, got things wrong, too, but in the opposite direction. On that same 10-point scale, the 10- and 11-year-olds’ answers averaged at 7.7, but their parents assumed they were happier than that, estimating their children’s happiness at 9.3 on average. (Also, did you catch that the teens rated themselves as slightly happier than the younger kids did? Those teenagers, upending expectations at every turn.)

Lopez-Perez and Wilson note that the parents’ estimates of their own happiness tended to correlate with their guesses for their children, suggesting a bit of ego-centrism — they judged their kid’s happiness by their own, in other words. But for the teenagers specifically, a few other things may help explain the parents’ lowball guesses. Kids at that age start to become more emotionally guarded around their parents, the researchers note, saving their more demonstrative moments for their friends. Also, the teenager their parents actually see and interact with every day probably does seem a little more on the unhappy side, because arguments between children and their parents tend to increase in the adolescent years. 

Teenagers: Still mysterious, largely unknowable beings, but happier than we think. Parents: Still just don’t understand.