How To Read Your Teen’s Face

In my presentations and articles on Social and Emotional Intelligence I often reference microexpressions.

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced. Unlike regular pro-longed facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.

There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. They often occur as fast as 1/15 to 1/25 of a second.I wanted to do a quick overview of the expressions because I believe that being able to read emotions is an essential part of emotional and social intelligence.

The face is the best indicator of a teen’s emotions. Yet, it is often overlooked. Dr. Paul Ekman, whose research is the premise of the show Lie to Me, has done groundbreaking research on decoding the human face. He has shown that facial expressions are universal. In other words, people in the US make the same face for sadness as indigenous people in Papa New Guinea who have never seen TV or movies to model. He also found that congenitally blind individuals—those blind since birth, also make the same expressions even though they have never seen other people’s faces.

Ekman has designated seven facial expressions that are the most widely used and easy to interpret. Learning to read them is incredibly helpful for understanding our kids and what they need, but are too afraid to ask for from parents. If you want to practice reading your child’s face, it is important to know the following basic expressions. I would recommend trying the following faces in the mirror so you can see what they look like on yourself. You will also find that if you make the facial expression, you also begin to feel the emotion yourself! Emotions not only cause facial expressions, facial expressions also cause emotions.

1) Surprise:

-The brows are raised and curved

-Skin below the brow is stretched

-Horizontal wrinkles across the forehead

-Eyelids are opened, white of the eye showing above and below

-Jaw drops open and teeth are parted but there is not tension or stretching of the mouth

2) Fear:

-Brows are raised and drawn together, usually in a flat line

-Wrinkles in the forehead are in the center between the brows, not across

-Upper eyelid is raised, but the lower lid is tense and drawn up

-Upper eye has white showing, but not the lower white

-Mouth is open and lips are slightly tensed or stretched and drawn back

3) Disgust:

-Upper lid is raised

-Lower lip is raised

-Nose is wrinkled

-Cheeks are raised

-Lines show below the lower lid

4) Anger:

-The brows are lowered and drawn together

-Vertical lines appear between the brows

-Lower lid is tensed

-Eyes hard stare or bulging

-Lips can be pressed firmly together with corners down or square shape as if shouting

-Nostrils may be dilated

-The lower jaw juts out

(all three areas must be engaged to not have any ambiguity)

5) Happiness:

-Corners of the lips are drawn back and up

-Mouth may or may not be parted, teeth exposed

-A wrinkle runs from outer nose to outer lip

-Cheeks are raised

-Lower lid may show wrinkles or be tense

-Crows feet near the outside of the eyes

6) Sadness:

-Inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn up

-Skin below eyebrow triangulated, with inner corner up

-Corner of the lips are drawn down

-Jaw comes up

-Lower lip pouts out

7) Contempt/Hate:

-One side of the mouth raises

Practice these emotions on yourself, and see if you can detect them in your teens. Sometimes knowing what emotion your seeing is also just as important as an emotion you are NOT seeing. For example, if you are talking to your teen about a vacation or activity you think they like, are they showing you genuine happiness? If you accuse them of cheating/smoking pot/breaking a rule do they show surprise or fear? If they are not surprised, they probably knew they did something wrong and are afraid of getting caught. You can also test yourself, using this test.

I am very transparent in reading teen’s faces when I am with them. I will often say, you are showing a lot of fear in your face, are you worried or scared about something we are talking about? Sometimes the teen I am speaking with was not even conscious of some of their fears.

The underlying importance of reading faces is that it has to be done in person, without looking down at a Blackberry or iPhone, so we have to pay attention to our teens. This alone helps tremendously in connecting with them and gleaning their true meaning.

This is part of EmoSocial Intelligence series. If you would like to read more articles on how to read and build nonverbal communication skills in your family or with your child, please visit our EmoSocial Intelligence page for tips and updated research.


P. Ekman, “Facial Expressions of Emotion: an Old Controversy and New Findings”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, B335:63–69, 1992

Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink, Chapter 1, Section 3, The Importance of Contempt

Camilleri, J., Truth Wizard knows when you’ve been lying”, Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 2009

Tags: , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply