Teaching your child how to communicate well is one of the most significant skills you can give them. Being able to express themselves well will help them avoid so many of the miscommunication landmines that occur between people.

If your child understands that it is OK to ask for clarity when they do not understand something, they will be able to avoid much frustration and disappointment throughout life.

Body Language, or Non-Verbal Communication, is about ‘reading’ and understanding, the subtle cues we send and receive to each other in a non-verbal way. Adults usually pick up on these non-verbal cues and react automatically.

A child who understands and responds to body language will be able to pick up on cues in conversations with peers and adults that may help them avoid unpleasant situations. They will recognise changes in body language and be able to take action before things escalate out of their control. They will have the option to change the conversation or leave.

A child with good body language presents well and gives the appearance of having confidence, even if they are anxious about standing up and talking in front of other people. 

If your child is reluctant to speak to people, they do not know well, teach them about body language and make it into a game of pretend. 

Suggestions:

“Let’s pretend that you are confident and that you enjoy talking to people.”

“Pretend you are a movie star or superhero who can talk to anyone.”

My mother used to say: “Stand with your back straight, hold your head up high, put a smile your face, keep your hands by your sides, take a deep breath, and then, GO get em Girl!”.

I have used this all my life, school, college, working, teaching, networking and presenting. I do the same ritual every time I walk into a room where there are people I don’t know. 

The Ritual:

  1. Back straight 
  2. Head held high
  3. A smile on my face
  4. Hands by my sides
  5. Deep breath and I remind myself ‘you can do this.’

It has never failed to give me confidence and I still do this every time I meet new people.

People Watching

People watching is an easy and great fun way to teach your child about body language.

They will understand that it is often not necessary to hear what the people are saying to be able to guess what is happening between them. Watching people at a BBQ, on the beach, in the shops or lining up to catch a bus or train can be heaps of fun. Your child will also be able to observe the very closed body language of people who use their mobile devices in public. There may even be some fun watching them miss a train because of not paying attention!

Explaining Body Language to Children

  • How people see us influences how they behave towards us
  • How we observe people reacting towards us effects how we respond to them
  • Talking to a person with ‘closed’ body language is usually not much fun
  • When you talk to a person with ‘open’ body language is usually an enjoyable experience

Closed Body Language

  • The person may have their arms folded in front of their body
  • They don’t make much eye contact with you
  • They keep looking away from you as if they would rather be somewhere else
  • Sometimes they remain seated while talking to you
  • They may not get down to your level when they are talking to you
  • When you talk to someone who has closed body language is not usually much fun and can be difficult if you need to ask that person for help or a favour.

Open Body Language

  • Talking to someone who has open body language makes us want to chat for longer, and it is easier to ask a favour from someone who has good, accessible body language than someone who does not.
  • The person talking to you usually has their arms by their sides and is facing you with their body
  • They give you eye contact
  • They concentrate on only you when they are talking to you
  • If they were sitting down when you walked in, they often stand up and step closer to you
  • If you are shorter than they are,  they often find a way to be on the same eye level as you are

Using Good Body Language

Teach your children to use open and unthreatening body language to their advantage.

  • Stand up straight, head held high, arms at your sides and look people into their eyes
  • If you are sitting down and someone walks up to you to talk, stand up so that you are not in a position to be ‘talked down to.’
  • If you are called over to speak to someone in a group of people who are sitting down and the conversation appears to be ongoing, ask if you can sit down. 
  • Try always to be on the same level as the person or persons you are talking to
  • If you are talking to a person who is younger than you, it may be appropriate to get down onto one knee so that your eyes can be level
  • If you are talking to someone in a wheelchair, make sure that they can see your face clearly without the person in the wheelchair having to bend their head upwards to talk to you
  • If appropriate, shake hands with the person you are talking to, if not hold your hands by your sides
  • Smile, people who are smiling tend to cause others to relax and smile back, smiling is contagious 

Try not to do these things:

  • Don’t stand with your arms crossed in front of you 
  • Do not remain seated if approached by an adult
  • Try not to look down at your feet, or around the room when being spoken to
  • If you are using a mobile device, turn it upside down, or put it away, so the person who is talking to you knows you are giving them your undivided attention

Things to watch for

FACE

Facial expressions are probably the first thing we notice when communicating with someone. 

Does the person talking to you:

Smile when you meet?
Of course, this usually means they are happy to see you

It is a good thing when the person you are talking to looks you in the eyes and hold eye contact with you
It means they are interested in what you are saying

Do they put their hand up to their mouth or head?
 Doing this can mean they are nervous, have just eaten and are worried that they may have food on their mouth or merely trying to think of something to say. If it keeps happening it is possible, the person is avoiding telling you something they don’t want you to know

BODY

It is GOOD IF YOU SEE THIS:

  • Small nodding of the head when listening to you talk
    This can a sign that the listener is engaged and agreeing, in part, with what you are saying
  • A smile that uses all the muscles of the face
    Crinkling the lines around the eyes can be taken as a positive response we call that ‘smiling with your eyes
  • Moving their body to fact you
    If the person moves their body ever so slightly towards your direction and they sit upright, shoulders back you can take this as a sign that they are interested in what you are saying


NOT SO GOOD TO SEE THIS:

  • A fake smile that does not reach the eyes
  • Unsmiling, possibly glaring in an unfriendly manner
  • Standing up and moving away before you are finished talking
  • Closed body language, i.e. arms folded tightly across their chest

MOUTH

Mouth expressions and movement are essential in reading body language

  • Chewing on the bottom lip may indicate that the person you are talking to may be worried
  • Smiles can be many things, genuine, sarcastic or even show false happiness
  • Pursed lips may indicate distaste, disapproval or distrust
  • Lip biting my suggest that they are worried, anxious or stressed
  • Covering the mouth may mean the person wants to hide an emotional reaction, or they may be covering their most to avoid displaying smiles or smirks
  • An upturned mouth can show the person is feeling happy or optimistic
  • A downturned mouth usually is an indicator of disapproval, sadness or even a grimace

Arms and legs

  • Arms crossed in front of your body indicate a defensive, self-protected or closed off attitude
  • Arms on hips can mean the person is ready and in control, possibly even aggressive
  • Crossed legs may indicate dislike or discomfort towards you or just that the person is in need of privacy
  • Arms held close to the sides may suggest that the person is trying to minimise themselves or withdraw away from attention.
  • Hands behind one’s back suggest that a person is bored, impatient or frustrated.

Posture

Sitting up straight may indicate that the person is focused and paying attention to what is going on

Sitting with the body hunched forwards may imply that the person is bored or doesn’t care much

Open posture involves keeping the trunk of the body open and exposed. This type of stance indicates friendliness, openness and willingness 

Closed posture is shown when a person crosses their arms or legs and may mean hostility, unfriendliness and anxiety

Using Positive Body Language:

Get your child to think about how they can use body language to their advantage.

Ask them which body language would be the best to see if they wanted to ask for a special favour, such as having a friend sleep over or going to a park or beach that requires someone to take them.

An example of reading body language for your children to consider would be to think of the different response they would see if you compared these two situations:

  1. They are helping clear the breakfast table and drop your favourite coffee mug. The mug falls and breaks, spilling leftover coffee everywhere.
  2. They are helping clear the breakfast table and drop your favourite coffee mug but manage to catch it before it hits the ground and no coffee spills.

In the first example, the best parent in the world will be able to say ‘oh, well just a mug, lets clean that all up’ etc. but it will be difficult not to show displeasure with their body language.

The second example would probably result in much laughter and a unified feeling of relief.

Talking

Explain to your child that what people hear from them influences how they respond. 

Teach them how to use a moderate tone of voice, and how to get their facial expression to help express the message they want to give.

Help them to understand about the use of ‘I’ statements rather than ‘You’ statements.

“I” messages describe the effect that someone else’s action has made you feel and can help make the other person to change the behaviour. 

So saying “I am upset because you broke my toy” is usually better to say than “You have upset me because you broke my toy”.

“You” messages send criticism, complaint, threat or blame

“I” messages explain how an action has made you feel

Listening

Good listening is one of the most important things we can teach our children.

Studies have shown that we can hear at nearly twice as fast as the average person talks.

That means we can speak at a rate of 125 to 150 words per minute, but we can hear, process, and analyse at a rate of 400 to 800 words per minute. 

As a child, I recall being easily distracted in class, especially when the teacher was going over something that I thought I knew. This unfortunately often made me miss important things.

Listening Tips:

  • Pay full attention to the person talking, so you don’t miss anything.
    Doing this can be difficul, especially if you are easily distracted  as I am
  • If you don’t fully understand, ask them to explain in a different way
    This sometimes happens when they have talked to long and involved, and your brain has gone ‘walkabout’ – you miss the important facts
  • Try not to let the person leave before you understand what they have asked
  • Watch the speaker’s body language and think about what it means
  • Don’t do another activity when someone is talking to you, especially do not be on your device
  • Don’t become defensive, watch that your body language matches your words
  • Try not to ‘close up’, fold your arms, or frown, as it will show the other person that you do not like what is  said
  • Try not to get distracted or act impatiently if the conversation is not going as you would like it to

Personal Space

I am sure you have experienced the uncomfortable feeling you get when someone stands or sits just a little bit too close to you. It is because they are invading your personal space.  Teach your child to recognise their own personal space.

Help them understand that they can:

Move away if someone comes too closet you and you don’t feel comfortable

If someone wants to give you a hug and you don’t want to get one it is OK to move away or put the side of your body so that they cuddle you ‘side on’

It is OK to say ‘you are too close to me; I don’t feel comfortable.’

Ensure your child knows to tell a responsible adult if someone is making them feel uncomfortable by being in their personal space

Older children may be interested to know that there are recognised distances of comfort for different situations between people.

Distances

An anthropologist called Edward T Hall described four levels of social distance that occur in different situations which he called ‘Proxemic Behaviour’:

Intimate distance 6 – 18 inches (15.24cm – 45.72cm)

This level of physical distance often indicates a closer relationship or greater comfort between individuals. It usually occurs during contacts such as hugging, whispering, or touching.

Personal distance 1.5 to 4 feet (45.72 – 121.92cm)

The physical gap at this level usually occurs between people who are family members or close friends. The closer the people can comfortably stand while interacting can be an indicator of the level of intimacy in the relationship.

Social Distance 4 to 2 feet (45.72cm – 60.96)

This level of physical distances often used with individuals who are acquaintances. With someone you know reasonably well, such as a co-worker you see several times a week, you may feel more comfortable interacting at a closer distance. In cases where you do not know the other person well such as a postal delivery person who you only see once a month or so then a range of 10 to 12 feet may fee more comfortable.

Public distance – 12 to 25 feet (365.76cm – 762cm)

The physical distance at this level is typical in public speaking situations. Talking in front of a class full of students or giving a presentation at work are good examples of such conditions.

A child with good communication skills will be able to avoid confusing situations where a lack of clear understanding has a tendency to make people grumpy and miserable. Children who can communicate well tend to be much happier than those who don’t!