Why nonverbal communication is important
Positive nonverbal communication can improve your relationship with your child. That’s because positive nonverbal communication – like smiles and eye contact – tells your child that you care about them. And because warm, loving relationships are key to children’s development, positive nonverbal communication helps child development too.
Positive nonverbal communication is also important for helping your child learn how to relate to and get along with other people, which is an important skill for life. For example, if you use warm, caring body language towards your child, it helps your child learn how to express love. If you stop what you’re doing to listen when your child wants to talk, it shows your child how to give people attention.
But negative nonverbal communication might send the message that you don’t care or don’t want to spend time with your child. Children can feel rejected or let down if this happens consistently.
Using body language and tone of voice to improve communication
Body language and tone of voice are key parts of nonverbal communication. You can use them to send positive nonverbal messages and reinforce what you’re saying to your child.
Here are some ideas for positive nonverbal communication:
- Touch your child’s arm to let your child know you’re interested and you care about what they’re saying or doing.
- Turn to face your child and use lots of eye contact. This says, ‘I’m giving you my full attention’ and ‘You’re important to me’.
- Bend down to your child’s level. This shows you want to be close and helps your child feel secure. It also helps with eye contact, especially for younger children.
- Use your body language to show your child that you’re trying to understand their feelings. For example, if your child smiles at you, smile back. If your child is sad, nod your head and look sad yourself. If your child looks frustrated, make eye contact and use a calm, reassuring tone of voice.
- Use a pleasant tone of voice and a relaxed body posture and facial expression when you talk with your child. This sends the message that you’re ready to listen. It also makes it easy for your child to tell the difference when you’re not happy with their behaviour.
- If your child likes cuddles, give plenty of them!
The right nonverbal communication can reinforce your words. For example, smiling when you say ‘Good morning’ sends the message that you’re happy to see your child. But if your nonverbal communication doesn’t match your words, your child might believe the nonverbal communication. So if you ask your child a question but turn away when your child answers, your child will probably think you’re not really interested.
Improving nonverbal communication as a family
Games and family challenges can be a fun way to develop your understanding of nonverbal communication as a family.
Here are some ideas:
- Play games that involve guessing to help children tune in to nonverbal communication. For example, you can smile, nod or change your facial expression to give clues about how close a guess gets to the answer.
- Watch a TV show with the sound off. See whether you and your child can work out what’s happening.
- 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.
- Draw pictures of faces with your child, or use toys to act out emotions. This can help your child learn about how we often express feelings without words, and about how to recognise other people’s feelings.
The Disney movie Inside Out can help children understand and talk about feelings and how we express them without words. You could watch it as a family and then talk about it afterwards.
Improving your child’s nonverbal communication
Your child learns about nonverbal communication by watching you and your nonverbal communication. You can also help your child with nonverbal communication in other ways.
For example, your child might be standing very close to a friend and the friend might look uncomfortable, or start stepping back.
You could gently remind your child to give their friend some space – for example, ‘Carly, let’s give Jacob a bit more room by taking a step back. Well done, Jacob’s got more space now’. If you notice your child doing what you’ve asked at another time, you can praise them. For example, ‘Carly, I like the way you gave Emile some space to open his presents at the party’.
Using nonverbal communication to guide your child’s behaviour
Nonverbal communication can be handy when distance or noise makes it hard to talk. For example, you might give your child a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ when they get an award at school or help a friend in the playground.
Likewise, if you see your child behaving in a way you don’t like, you can use your facial expression and body language to send a message. For example, you might shake your head or put your hand up to signal stop.
You can also use nonverbal communication to reinforce your words when your child is behaving in a difficult way. For example, if you need your child to stop and listen, you could try:
- speaking in a clear, firm tone – for example, ‘Jaz, you’re being too rough with your friends. Please keep your hands to yourself’
- maintaining consistent eye contact and tone of voice
- bending down to your child’s level
- clasping your child’s hand to get their attention if they don’t look up.
It can be hard to match your nonverbal communication and your words when your child does or says something that’s funny but also unacceptable – for example, if a young child says ‘Mummy’s a poo-head’ or an older child repeats something rude an adult has said.
It’s tempting to laugh, but that sends a mixed message. 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 using a firm tone to say something like ‘In our family we speak to each other politely’.
Nonverbal communication and children with additional needs
Autistic children and children with other additional needs can have trouble with communication, including nonverbal communication.
For example, autistic children often need to be taught about eye contact. You can do this by holding objects you know your child wants right in front of your eyes. Keep doing this until your child automatically looks up when they want something. But even when autistic children know how to use eye contact, they can often listen better when they aren’t looking directly into the speaker’s eyes. You might need to adjust your communication depending on what works best for your child.
Some children also have sensory sensitivities and might find body contact like hugging difficult. These children might be more comfortable with other expressions of warmth or approval. Think about the sort of nonverbal communication that your child likes best, and use this to communicate approval – for example, clapping, winking or giving a thumbs-up.