Body Language – The Parent Child Divide

Posted on November 1, 2010


 When I had my son, I fully admit I was not prepared for the journey of parenthood, to say I was a complete novice is an understatement.  I kept looking for the ‘manual’, the ‘off switch’ and the ‘reset’ button.  If someone invents one of them, I am definitely first in line to get it.   I didn’t have the benefit of foresight or even the insight that would allow me to understand the complexities of raising a child.  I guess I was slightly naive in thinking he would just need feeding, bathing, changing and hugging and I had to find out on my own how to nurture this baby and truthfully not all of it came naturally to me.

With today’s life styles and the constant demands on parents to readdress their thinking and understand everything from what to do and what not to do and also with everyone having a say in it, it’s not surprising, that as parents your main focus about how providing the necessary requirements to raising a child can become hazy.  I have a long standing debate with my son’s father about how we interact with him.  He believes children should be seen and not heard and do as they are told.  I believe that children need to be treated as equals with a line of guidance and discipline.  My previous posts on this will show that I am a firm believer in not smacking and prefer discussing “what’s going on” with my son.   You can’t do this when they are babies and toddlers and in my ‘suck it and see’ type of way means that I have looked to external advice when I’ve not been entirely sure.   I’ve read so many articles and books and the one thing I found which is often overlooked, is how your body language can play an important part when raising a child.  It was something I had never considered but once I discovered it, it did make me think about the effect of what I do subconsciously and how that can have an effect on my son.

Can Body Language Speak Louder Than Words?

As parents we’ve all done it, we spend countless amount of time saying “don’t do that”, “Stop playing with that”, “mind your manners”, “do this”, and we focus so much on telling our children what to do and what not do, how to behave and how not to behave that we forget how we behave ourselves.  I’ve seen many articles that say in the early years Children will respond more to what you do as a parent than to what you say.  

Body language is all about the physical clues and something that when children are forming their development, learning the visual part is far easier and more noticeable for them than the verbal.  So when you tell your child something and your body language is saying the complete opposite, is it surprising that the child gets a mixed message and will follow the visual instruction?  For example if you’re cooking dinner and your child comes to you with a picture they’ve drawn and they are all excited about what they have done, you nod and say “that’s lovely” but if you don’t really stop what you are doing, your body language shows you don’t really care, so the only thing the child gets from this is that what they’ve done isn’t good enough.  It may seem farfetched but its small things like this that build up over time and ultimately can affect a child’s self esteem.

This type of behaviour also shows how as adults we set examples, as children will pick up on visual clues based on what we do.  I was forever telling my son to not interrupt but my mother who looks after him whilst I am at work has a hearing problem and does it constantly.  What I found is that I was losing over this because he saw it happen on a regular basis and therefore followed the example, thinking that’s what we do.  It was only as he got older and I was able to communicate with him about it that I managed to stop it, if he had not been subjected to this from a young age I don’t think it would of been so much of a problem.  

It is not possible to communicate with babies in this way but it is easy to see they do react positively to body language such as smiling, cooing, cuddling, etc and they soon learn to repeat this type of body language, in the same way that if your are showing signs of stress, fear, etc through your body language, a baby will react in a negative way.  A child that never experiences affection will grow up not knowing how to be affectionate and in the same way, if you expect your child to share but you don’t share with them, how do you really expect them to be able to do this?

Reinforcing the Positive

I noticed before my son’s verbal language developed there was a time that his body language would speak louder than his actual words.  I quite often missed the point he was trying to convey and didn’t realise it but my body language relayed this frustration, which in turn increased his. I found that trying to guess what he wanted only resulted in even more frustration and in the end I would look to divert his attention to something else.  It didn’t help at the time with understanding what he wanted but what it did do was alleviate the crying and potential tantrum that was about to explode.  I had a box of foam characters, crayons, a jigsaw and some finger puppets and found that it was very easy to change my body language into “let’s do this” from “what on earth do you want?” after all if you can capture a child’s attention, distract the focus of frustration you can also move on from what is causing the problem.

As my son became a toddler I found it frustrating at times that he appeared to be just ignoring me, if I said “No” he would often laugh and carry on, I think just to see if I really meant what I said.  If I reinforced my “No” by shaking my head and removing the object it had a far greater affect than by just saying “No” and then carrying on with what we were doing.  I also found that by ensuring I praised and showed enthusiasm for when my son did something that I reinforced the positivity around those areas.  I found applying this strategy when teaching him for things like potty training and feeding himself were far easier and successful when I focused on praising him, clapping and smiling than if I got upset when he had an accident or made a mess.  

As a parent you want to show love and emotion but you also need to set the rules, boundaries and discipline, otherwise your child will not learn right from wrong. If from the beginning your body language shows different from what you are saying, how are they supposed to know?