Teenagers can be intimidating.

Their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language often suggest that they want to be left alone. And sometimes that is what they want.

But more often, being left alone is not what they want.

Those dirty looks, rolling eyes and standoffish body language are usually a result of an unconscious response in their brain. In one study, when teens and adults were both shown a picture of a person with a neutral expression, brain scans revealed that in teens a major portion of the amygdala (the emotionally reactive part of the brain) was activated whereas in the adults, the prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of the brain) was activated. So even a neutral stimulus, triggered a deeply rooted emotional fear based response.

In short, it is very likely that teens negative nonverbal communication has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the teenage brain.

Facial expressions: The smug look and rolling eyes may not indicate that a teen thinks you’re stupid, worthless or aggravating. It could be their “resting teen face”, which is more of a habit than an unconscious nonverbal communication.

Tone of voice: remember, teens spend most of their time communicating with each other. Their vocal tone, word choice and rapport they have with one another often carries over into their communication with adults, much less successfully.

Body language: teens hanging around each other will likely treat unfamiliar, and even familiar adults with a cold standoffish behavior. Because of their distrust for adults, they act more out of fear. Try to see these behaviors as fear based rather than contempt. If I don’t understand what your motives are and I don’t trust you, my behavior, especially if I’m not an adult who is aware of and can “fake” it, will reflect that. Don’t take it personally.


  • Become aware of what thoughts and feelings you have when you encounter teens.
  • Try no to take it personally when they don’t give you the non-verbal acknowledgement you may get from adults.
  • Challenge any belief that makes the teen’s behavior about you.