It’s often said that actions speak loudest. Dr Nicola Davies reveals how you and
your child communicate without uttering a single word
‘If language was given to men to conceal their thoughts, then gesture’s purpose was
to disclose them,’ decreed the Scottish scholar John Napier many hundreds of years
ago. And it is just as
true today. Consciously or unconsciously, we all communicate with our bodies. Hand
gestures, facial expressions, shoulder movements, touching or stroking the hair or
face – all of these actions are a form of body language that conveys a message without
Despite our frequent use of body language to communicate, most of the time we focus
on what other people are saying and pay less attention to what their bodies might
be expressing. Body language can, however, be a very useful parenting tool.
Why body language matters
‘Body language can go a long way to promote positive parenting and, conversely, a
lack of awareness can promote feelings of isolation and low self-esteem in our children,’
says Vivien Sabel, author of The Blossom Method: The Revolutionary Way to Communicate
with your Baby from Birth.
It’s important for parents to make children aware from an early age how they send
negative and positive messages using body language. This will make children sensitive
to their own and other people’s emotions and intentions.
It’s well known that babies use non-verbal cues right from the word go. ‘They purposefully
move their lips, tongues, eye gaze, head position, hands, legs and all of their bodies
in an attempt to communicate not only what they are experiencing but what they
need, desire, enjoy and dislike,’ says Vivien Sabel.
As children grow and begin to pay more attention to their own body language and that
of others, they become more attuned to the subtleties of human communication and
interaction. Sensing when somebody is happy, sad, aggressive or confident will help
them adjust their behaviours and attitudes when relating to others.
Making children aware of the body language which conveys positive needs or feelings
is particularly helpful. ‘Parents’ gestures, posture, eye contact and expression
teach children how to use their faces and bodies to communicate: for example, learning
point, wave or use touch to comfort others,’ says Dr Claire Halsey, Parenting Expert
and Clinical Psychologist.
‘Children need to experience different body languages and expressions to learn to
communicate themselves and to read the cues of other children and adults as they
The attitudes and feelings parents convey through gestures, facial
expressions and hand and arm movements can boost or crush a
child’s confidence and self-esteem without uttering a word. Your nonverbal messages
sometimes have more influence than your spoken ones, so it is worth taking the time
to become more in-tune with your body language.
One non-verbal cue that is especially effective for communicating to your child that
he is important to you is eye contact. Smiling or gently placing your hand on your
child’s shoulder or arm are also comforting ways of communicating your love.
Children are also more amenable to adults who speak to them in a respectful tone
with a gentle smile than those who tower over them in a commanding posture. On the
other hand, sighing or keeping your gaze on the TV while talking does not convey
warmth, nurturance or interest.
‘When my children don’t listen to me properly I always make a point of requesting
eye contact to get their focus,’ says Kerri Jones, mother of two year-old Ava and
five-year-old Jay. ‘I sometimes need to ask Jay to look into my eyes as I am speaking
to make him
understand what exactly I am saying. If he continues not to listen, I will gently
hold him by the chin to get him to look me in the eye. I often find that eye contact
makes him slow down and gather the information.’
‘Toddlers want to know you have observed (seen and heard) them when things happen
to them,’ says Vivien Sabel. ‘If they fall and they are upset join them briefly in
their distress by mirroring their non-verbal cues. This helps to acknowledge their
experiences. Once you’ve done this, you can alter your facial expression to
one of courage, or offer a gentle smile to reassure that their distress will soon
pass. This discourages children from hiding their feelings or suppressing themselves,
and encourages them to
develop their own empathy skills.’
You will help your child immeasurably if you learn to pay more attention to your
own non-verbal ways of expressing yourself, and help them become conscious of the
messages they communicate. It doesn’t have to be all serious talk either – turn off
the volume on the TV and make a game out of guessing with your child what
people on screen are saying or feeling by watching their body language.
What your toddler is trying to say
• When your two-and-a-half year old avoids making eye contact, it can be a sign that
he has done something he is not feeling good about. This is a normal, healthy sign,
since it shows your child can distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.
• Toddlers will show apprehension and unease by crossing their arms. This can also
be a sign of anger, but often they do it instinctively to protect themselves from
situations they are uncertain about.
• When meeting new people, toddlers might pull their clothing over their faces. If
they smile while doing so, they probably feel shy and are being playful, or else
they might be feeling suspicious and have become guarded.
BODY OF EVIDENCE
The more conscious children are of their own body language,
the better they will be able to observe and control the messages they convey. Looking
lost and confused when alone in a shopping centre can make your child look vulnerable.
When we are sensitized to body language, it makes relating to
others easier. Your children will be able to tell if their friends are
sad, or in the mood for play.
LIKE AND DISLIKE
In the same way that we can use words to hurt, children should
know they also show disrespect to others when rolling their eyes
in exasperation, or turning their back when you are talking.
Reading the messages
Parents can use the following non-verbal cues in the messages they give out:
If possible, sit or kneel at equal height to your child’s face so you can maintain
Recognise and respect your child’s space by not leaning in too close when speaking
or listening to him.
When you want to come across as open and non-judgmental, uncross your arms and legs,
and show the palms of your hands when making arm or hand movements.
Mimicking your child’s posture and facial expression when speaking to him will show
that you understand what he is saying.
Nod your head at regular intervals to show you are interested in what your child
Ask a Parenting Expert (2009) by Dr Claire Halsey, Matthew
Johnson, and Joanna Grave (Dorling Kindersley).
The Blossom Method: The Revolutionary Way to Communicate with your Baby from Birth
(2012) by Vivien Sabel (Vermilion).