Nonverbal communication with children: what it is and why it’s important
Verbal communication is when you use words to send a message – for example, when you say, ‘I love you’. Nonverbal communication is when you use body language, facial expressions and tone of voice – for example, when you cuddle your child.
Positive nonverbal communication is important because it can strengthen your relationship with your child. For example, eye contact, smiles, hugs and a warm tone of voice reinforce the message that you love your child.
Positive nonverbal communication can also help your child develop life skills, including communication, relationship and behaviour skills.
You can build your relationship and develop your child’s skills by using positive nonverbal communication in your everyday communication with your child. You can also model these skills when you communicate with others. And everyday play and family interactions can help too.
Nonverbal communication can be negative too – for example, not answering your child when they talk to you. This kind of nonverbal communication isn’t good for your relationship with your child. It 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.
Warm, loving relationships are key to children’s development. Positive nonverbal communication is good for your child’s development because it strengthens your relationship with your child.
Strengthening relationships with children through nonverbal communication
You can use body language and other elements of nonverbal communication to send positive nonverbal messages to your child. This helps to strengthen your relationship with your child.
Here are ideas for using positive nonverbal communication in your everyday interactions with your child:
- 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 plenty 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 relaxed body posture, facial expression and tone of voice 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!
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 body language and words don’t match, your child might be confused. For example, if you ask your child a question but turn away when your child answers, your child might think you’re not really interested.
Developing children’s skills through nonverbal communication
Your child learns nonverbal communication and relationship skills by watching your nonverbal communication. For example, when you stop and tune in to what your child is saying, you show your child how to listen. When you smile and make eye contact, you show your child how to relate warmly to others.
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, Jacob looks a bit uncomfortable. Let’s give him more room by taking a step back’. 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 space to open presents at the party’.
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, help a friend in the playground, or look nervous on stage and need reassurance.
Guiding children’s behaviour through nonverbal communication
You can use aspects of nonverbal communication like facial expression and body language to guide your child towards positive behaviour. For example, you might shake your head or put your hand up to signal stop if your child is behaving in a challenging way.
You can also use nonverbal communication to reinforce your words when your child is behaving in a challenging 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 nonverbal signals match your words. So try keeping a straight face and using a firm tone to say something like ‘In our family we speak to each other respectfully’.
Improving nonverbal communication skills as a family
Games and family challenges can be a fun way to develop nonverbal communication skills as a family.
Here are 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, say, ‘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 expressing feelings without words and also about recognising 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.
Nonverbal communication and children with additional needs
For example, some autistic children find it difficult to use spoken language or have no language at all. They might use nonverbal communication. For example, your child might take your hand and push it towards something they want. You can build on this by teaching your child to point to the thing they want or to use picture cards.
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.