By Raising Children Network
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Mother hugging daughter on bed

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‘Microexpressions’ are facial expressions that last only for a second. They can show emotions that a person wants to hide.
When you communicate with your child, you might choose your words carefully, but most communication is without words. Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, body language, body contact, eye contact, personal space and tone of voice.

Why nonverbal communication is important

Giving positive nonverbal messages can improve your relationship with your child and boost emotional connections in your family. Most children love being hugged and kissed, for example. This warm and caring body language sends the nonverbal message that you want to be close to your child.

Some children with special needs – for example, children with autism spectrum disorder and sensory sensitivities – might find body contact difficult.

On the other hand, negative nonverbal communication – for example, a grumpy tone of voice or a frown – when you’re doing something fun together might send the message that you don’t really want to be there.

So matching your verbal and nonverbal communication makes your words more effective. For example, a teacher might explain a maths problem using her hands to show size and shape.

But when verbal and nonverbal messages don’t match, your child might believe the nonverbal – after all, what you see is what you get. Your child learns a lot about nonverbal communication by watching you. For example, if you approach new people in a relaxed way, your child is more likely to do the same.

How to use body language and tone of voice

Here are some ideas for using body language and tone of voice to send helpful and positive nonverbal messages when you’re communicating with your child:

  • A touch on the arm says you’re interested and shows you care. A hug builds emotional connection.
  • Frequent eye contact says that you’re listening and ready to share feelings and connect with your child. Facing your child says, ‘I’m giving you my full attention’ and ‘You’re important to me’. Bending down to your child’s level shows you want to be close and helps him feel more secure.
  • ‘Mirroring’ your child is when you use the same facial expressions or tone of voice as your child. You can choose to mirror your child when you like what she’s saying and doing. This also sends the message that you’re trying to understand how she’s feeling. For example, if your child smiles at you, you smile back. This can also build up your emotional connection over time.
  • Being aware of your own body language and tone of voice as you talk to your child and others will also help your child to develop good nonverbal communication skills. For example, if you have a pleasant tone of voice and a relaxed body posture and facial expression, you’ll seem approachable to your child.
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication in children with ASD or children with a nonverbal learning disability can be challenging. For example, children with ASD often need to be taught about eye contact. You can do things like always holding objects you know your child wants right in front of your eyes. Keep doing this until your child automatically looks up when she wants something.
Boys tend to have a harder time reading facial expressions than girls. You can help your son by reinforcing your verbal communication with consistent eye contact and tone of voice. For example, you might say, ‘Ted, it’s great that you’re going bike-riding with Aziz, but when it starts to get dark, you need to come home’. Look your child in the eye and use a clear, crisp tone as you say it.

Being aware of nonverbal communication

Games and family challenges can be a fun way to develop your understanding of your nonverbal communication as a family.

For example, you could try video-recording a family conversation and then watch it together. See who can spot the nonverbal communication, such as touches, hugs, gestures, eye contact and so on.

Then you could talk about things like whether the body language matches the words. If you see something that you don’t like about the way you’re communicating – for example, not looking at your child when he’s talking – you could try to change this in the future.

Another idea is to try watching a TV show with the sound off and see whether you and your child can work out what’s happening.

Or family members could take turns at dinner practising different tones of voice – for example, saying, ‘I would like the salad please’ in a grumpy tone and then in a gentle tone.

Teachable moments and managing behaviour

Every day there’ll be times when you can guide your child’s nonverbal communication. These are called teachable moments.

For example, if your child is standing very close to a friend and the friend looks uncomfortable, or is stepping back, this is a teachable moment. You might gently remind your child to give his friend some space – for example, ‘Tobias, let’s give Jacob a bit more room by taking a step back. Well done, Jacob’s got more space now’.

When you notice your child doing what you’ve asked – for example, at a friend’s party – praise her. For example, ‘Nala, I like the way you gave Emile some space to open his presents at the party’.

Nonverbal communication can be handy at times when distance or noise makes it hard to talk. For example, you might give your child a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ when he gets an award at school or helps a friend in the playground. If you see something you don’t like, you might shake your head or give a ‘thumbs down’.

If you need to discipline your child, you can use your tone of voice and facial expressions to show her that you’re firm and loving. For example, ‘Jas, you’re being too rough with your friends. Please keep your hands to yourself’.

This can be easier said than done when your child does or says something that’s funny but also unacceptable – for example, ‘Mummy’s a poo-head’. It’s tempting to laugh, but your child will be more likely to understand that this behaviour isn’t acceptable if your words and your nonverbal signals match up.

So try keeping a straight face and saying something like, ‘In our family we speak to each other politely’.

  • Last updated or reviewed 30-01-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Dr Zeynep Biringen.