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Speak without words

…to get the message through

Communicating with our children and teens goes beyond words. Tone of voice and body language are just as – and perhaps more – important. Some experts estimate non-verbal communication delivers at least half the message in any conversation; others put it as high as 93%.

Either way, we should worry less about what we have to say, and more about how we say it.

Imagine the difference in the conversations we can have with our kids if we….

  1. Smile and greet them when they enter the house, or even the room.
  2. Brighten up when we see them. (Show them they’re a welcome presence: Brighten up!)
  3. Stop what we’re doing – technology off – to make time for them daily.
  4. Listen more than we speak.
  5. Pay attention and make eye contact when they’re speaking.
  6. Ensure our words, gestures and tone are all saying the same thing.
  7. Keep an open stance when we’re communicating: shoulders back, arms loose, and a relaxed versus tense posture.
  8. Laugh often. It brings a positive and happy note to our relationships.

“Words cannot express….”

Many volumes have been written about body language and other forms of nonverbal communication. There are messages in the direction in which a person moves their eyes when speaking, in the positioning of a handshake, and even in the way we touch our nose.

For our purposes, though, let’s focus on two major goals when communicating with our kids: letting them know we are listening to understand, and deepening our relationship.

Listening to understand: keeping watch

Use plenty of affirmative body language to let your child know you’re following every word.

  • Nod your head to show agreement or to encourage them to talk.
  • Sit or lean forward to show interest and engagement.
  • Keep your eyes focused on them; don’t let wandering eyes signal your attention is elsewhere.
  • Keep your body focused too.  Scratching your neck, for example, gives the impression that you doubt or disbelieve the speaker.
  • Avoid crossing your arms, which can signal you are closed or resistant to what is being said.
  • Maintain an open hand when you gesture; remember finger pointing is confrontational and finger waving implies an authoritarian warning.

In addition to watching your own body language, notice the signals your child is giving out. Posture reveals emotions more than words.

  • Do they cross their arms when they speak? Crossed arms are a physical barrier. This gesture usually reflects either animosity towards an authority figure, or boredom.
  • If you’re sitting down together, do their knees point in your direction, or in the direction of the TV? A seated person tends to point their knees at the point of interest.
  • If you’re standing, are their hands in the pockets? This could be another sign of disinterest or boredom.
  • During an argument, does your child mirror your physical posture or facial expressions? Their face and body are saying they agree with you and like you, although their words and tone of voice may say the opposite.
  • In the case of teens and young adults, are their feet on the move? Do they wind one foot around the other? Kick the table leg? Jiggle up and down? When stressed, anxious or nervous, we focus on our facial, upper body and hand/arm gestures, but forget about our feet. To gauge someone’s emotional state, look to their feet.
  • Be aware of any gripping of their own upper arms while their arms are folded. It’s self-hugging, which usually reflects a need to ward off unhappy feelings.
  • Is your son or daughter crossing an arm over their body to adjust a watchstrap, sleeve, necklace, etc. during a conversation? Generally, this is a protective gesture that reveals nervousness.

Taking note of your child’s nonverbal cues can help identify the best, and worst, moments to start a conversation.

Deepening our relationship: mirroring

When it comes to body language, mirroring speaks volumes. People who are open to what another person is saying physically get “in sync.” It’s a mutual affirmation that creates strong feelings of trust.

Mirroring, like most body language, is usually subconscious rather than deliberate. But we can apply it to send the message to our kids that, whatever the topic of conversation, we’re empathizing with them.

Vocal Mirroring

People in rapport have a similar tone of voice. Show you’re willing to enter into your child’s perspective by matching the speed and tone of your voice to theirs.

Adopting a matching voice tone and speed doesn’t mean mimicking our kids, just altering our speech patterns to better suit their mood. For example, if your teen is happy and upbeat when a teachable moment happens to present itself, aim for a happy and upbeat tone in your own voice, too. A sombre and serious approach might destroy the atmosphere that made the child appear open to a discussion about alcohol.

Postural mirroring

People in rapport adopt the same body positions. Try setting a positive tone by matching your posture to that of your child. For example, if your son or daughter is sitting leaning forward with their elbows on their knees watching something controversial on TV, sit alongside and lean forward too. Help make it a perfect teachable moment.

Once you feel you’re in rapport with your child, double-check by taking the lead with a new posture. For example, if you’re both sitting with crossed legs, uncross yours and see if your child does the same. If so, the climate is right to constructively put forth your thoughts.

When was the last time you and your child were comfortable in a meaningful conversation?

  • Were you matched in volume, tone and maybe even in breathing?
  • Were you mirroring each other’s posture?

Mirror your child if you want a deeper relationship.


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