Why do we misread faces?

Charlotte JenkinsBeacon Family Services, Family Relationships

Scrolling through Twitter recently I saw a discussion between parents about what to do when a child doesn’t like an adult at their school.  The child had explained to their parent that they ‘did not like the adult’s face’.  The parent was bemused as they had experienced the adult as kind.  They were now in a dilemma, familiar to the other parents, about trusting their child’s inner instinct even though it didn’t make sense and fit with their own experience.

This got me thinking about Dr Porges work.  He noticed we all have an ability to sense when we are in danger and has developed Polyvagal Theory, which describes how we approach our relationships at a biological and behavioural level.   He says we are all hard wired to know when there is an imminent life threat and respond.

We have a super sense he calls neuroception which is always working in the background scanning for signs of safety and danger around us.   It means we can sense something that may make us unsafe before we even register the thought.   Anyone who has found themselves braking hard before the thought about what may happen had even finished forming is using this sense.

Wired For Protection Not Connection.  

If we are exposed to lots of unsafe experiences, we can start to get anxious and stuck in unsafe mode. This is especially true for children who struggle to integrate and make sense of the information their senses receive, due to Autism or ADHD and children who have experienced neglect, abuse, loss and other frightening relational experiences in their early years.

If you are on high alert for danger you need strong signals of safety.  When faced with a facial expression we have to make a quick assessment of what will happen next.   Put another way those who are not used to assuming the good intentions of others do not wait and see what happens but assume danger.

A person’s facial expressiveness or lack of and tone of voice can determine how a relationship or encounter will unfold. 

A neutral facial expression is the hardest for children to read.  Staying neutral in the face of distress can be a sign of lack of safety.   Whilst the intention may be to make space for a child’s big feelings they may assume you are angry or aggressive.

Feelings are not right or wrong they just are

Feeling unsafe happens in the body and is instinctive.  To help a child feel safe with you we recommend you keep your tone of voice light (a stern voice is like the low growl of a predator to the body) and think about your posture and facial expression.   Your child will be noticing signs that you are safe and calm. Being tense or covering this with a neutral expression will be read as threat by your child’s body.

Often being playful with a child helps us naturally communicate safety.  Our Cards To Help You Connect introduce a range of Theraplay based games that build and strengthen relationships by communicating safety through play whether a child is safe, struggling or drowning.

Here at Beacon Family Services, we know that helping others starts with helping yourself.  Dealing with children who are feeling unsafe can be confusing and frightening and leave parents and teachers struggling.  Focussing on your breath sends messages to your own body that you are OK helping you communicate that safety to a child.  All our packs include a guide for adults to explore what they need to feel safe.


Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.