Happiness quotient

Parents assume their young kids are happy and their teenagers are sad. They’re wrong.

A new study reveals parents often misgauge how content their children are

Photo via Colin J (Flickr)

Kids have more complex interior lives than we give them credit for. They start fibbing as early as age two, and they have a good sense of when they’re being lied to by adults. We expect parents to be more attuned to their children’s emotional lives than anyone—but even they are surprisingly bad at guessing how happy their children are, a new study suggests.

In a paper in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a pair of psychologists from the UK’s University of Plymouth compared children’s reports on their own happiness levels with their parents’ assessments of their kids’ well-being. The study, by Dr. Belen Lopez-Perez and Ellie Wilson, included 172 grade-school kids (10- and 11-year-olds), 185 adolescents (15- and 16-year-olds) and their parents.

The children—drawn from two schools in Spain—ranked their general feelings of happiness on a scale of zero to 10 and took the “Oxford Happiness Questionnaire,” a standard happiness-research survey with questions like whether they have warm feelings towards others and whether they feel that life is rewarding. The kids filled out their surveys in the classroom and were given another set of questionnaires to take home. Their parents then completed two sets of surveys: One about their own happiness levels, and another on their children’s (e.g. “My child feels that life is very rewarding”). Both children and parents were given strict instructions not to talk to each other about their responses.

When Lopez-Perez and Wilson analyzed the hundreds of surveys they got back, a few patterns emerged. Parents were less in tune with their children’s feelings than the researchers expected, and their misconceptions depended largely on the age of their child: 70 percent of the parents of 10 and 11-year-olds overestimated their children’s happiness, while 78 percent of the parents of 15- and 16-year-olds underestimated their teenagers’ happiness levels.

That could have to do with our assumptions about children—that kids are happy and teenagers are moody. But parents’ perceptions of their children’s happiness were closely correlated with their own happiness levels: their own self-reports showed that parents of adolescents were significantly less happy than parents of 10- and 11-year-olds, and the adults appear to have been projecting their own feelings onto their kids. “These discrepancies were due to an egocentric bias, with parents using their own happiness as an anchor point to estimate their children’s happiness,” the authors write.

Wilson and Lopez-Perez aren’t the first to suggest that kids really are misunderstood by their parents a lot of the time. Another paper from this year found that mothers with anxiety or depression were more likely to perceive their own symptoms in their children (whether or not they were present). And a recent study by Kristin Lagattuta, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, also found that parents of children under 12 tend to believe their kids are happier than they say they are.

“Being unable to read children’s happiness appropriately may increase misunderstanding between parents and children/adolescents, which has been shown to have negative consequences for parent–child relationships,” write Wilson and Lopez-Perez. Though we probably don’t need to see academic research to believe that last claim.

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