Children communicate their ideas and feelings in two ways—verbally, using words, and nonverbally, using body movements. Body language (also termed nonverbal communication) reveals as much as spoken language. What makes body language particularly fascinating is that we don’t have as much control over it as we do over spoken language. Body language leaks out, without us realizing.
Sometimes a child’s body language conveys the same message as the spoken language; at other times body language and spoken language appear to be in conflict. When this happens, always believe the body language rather than the spoken language. Remember the time you asked your son to tidy his room because he had said he wouldn’t mind, but then he sulked silently for the rest of the morning? Or the time your child claimed not to be upset by another child’s aggressive behavior toward him, and yet burst out crying a few moments later? Incidents like this—where a child’s body language reveals feelings that contradict what he says—happen all the time.
Young babies have no choice over whether to use body language as a means of communication; they can’t speak. Parents quickly learn to interpret their baby’s nonverbal communication; they learn the difference between a cry that signifies hunger and one that signifies tiredness, or the difference between wriggling that represents playfulness and wriggling that represents discomfort. This sort of nonverbal communication goes on between parents and children in a very natural way.
Body language follows the same principles, whatever the age of the child, although the younger your child is, the less sophisticated his body language. A young baby’s nonverbal communication will include the following:
Facial expressions. A baby’s smile tells you he is happy; his pursed lips tell you he is unhappy; and his pouting lip tells you he is so annoyed that he’s probably going to cry or scream at any moment.
Leg movements. If a baby’s legs are gently kicking in the air, then you can be sure he’s happy and playful. On the other hand, if his legs are drawn tightly up toward his tummy, the chances are that he is in pain.
Arm and hand movements. A baby whose hands are tightly bunched and held close to his face is probably in some discomfort, while a baby whose hands are open and relaxed is almost certainly feeling contented. Similarly, gentle hand and arm movements suggest playfulness, while swinging, forceful arm movements suggest anger.
Noises. At this stage of development, a baby also uses sounds to let people know what he is feeling and thinking, such as quiet gurgling when he’s contented, loud screaming when he’s irritable, and babbling when he’s trying to catch an adult’s attention. Respond: This is the beginning of your child’s use of language.
Breathing. When a baby’s breathing is slow and deep, he’s either in a state of sound sleep or else he is about to enter a state of sound sleep, whereas shallow breathing usually means he is upset.
Your ability to interpret your baby’s body language is one of the factors that influence the extent to which you are able to form a two-way emotional bond with him.
Older children have a much wider repertoire of body language than babies because they have a more mature level of understanding, are mobile, and are able to use eye contact more effectively. These new dimensions greatly expand a child’s nonverbal communication skills:
Social Understanding. The gap we leave between ourselves and another person during conversation (social distance) is normally between eighteen and twenty-four inches (forty-five and sixty centimeters). A greater distance probably means bad feeling between the people (for example, when your child angrily shouts at you from the other side of the room), while a shorter distance can mean either temper (such as when you and your child have a disagreement), or closeness (such as when your child sits on your knee while you read him a story).
Mobility. A child who is angry can express anger in a number of ways using body language. He can simply walk out of the room, or throw his toys all over the place, or even lie flat on his back and scream. Most of us have experienced this type of nonverbal communication from an irate child, and we don’t have any problem interpreting the deeper meaning underlying it!
Eye Contact. When a child is tense and nervous, or when he feels guilty about having done something he knows is wrong, then, chances are, he will not be able to make eye contact with you—he will look at the ground when talking to you. On the other hand, when he tells you something he is pleased about, he will probably look straight into your eyes as he talks to you.