Why Teens Often Don’t Act Upset, But Are

There was a very famous experiment called the “Strange Situation Test.” In this experiment, researchers, put one year-olds in a room with their mothers. After a few moments, their mothers were asked to leave. Some of the toddlers cried, while others didn’t. However, all of the toddlers had the same levels of stress hormones released when their mothers left the room. The ones who didn’t cry had learned from a very young age to bottle up their feelings.


I think this is an important lesson for all human interactions. Often times people do not act upset, however not acting upset does not lessen the emotional impact of an upsetting event. Teens especially will often act like they are not upset, worried or angry, but are very much feeling the stress of an emotion.


What does this mean for us?

I believe that it is another reason for parents to be very engaged with their children or teens when they know something is going on in their life. For example, many parents tell me that when their child gets in a fight with a friend they act like it is no big deal. They wonder then, “If my kid is not upset and ignoring it, maybe I should too so I am not encouraging upset.” There is a fine line between encouraging over-emotionality and acknowledging feelings your teen or child might be too afraid to feel. I highly encourage parents to address emotionally stressful events on a regular basis to show their children they one, always have an outlet with you, and two to help them process their feelings.


This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.


Sunderland, Margot. Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance on Sleep, Crying, Play, and Building Emotional Well-being for Life. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.


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