Nonverbal communication is an essential part of how we interact with each other. Children’s nonverbal communication is especially crucial in understanding and comforting kids. Younger children often struggle to express their emotions and thoughts using words.

As we learn to notice children’s nonverbal communication, we will be able to build deeper connections with our children. Our responses will help them feel seen, heard, and understood.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is how we relay information or messages without speaking. It’s the teenager’s eye roll, the toddler’s thumbs up, and the way a parent shrugs.

What to Look For:

  • Body language: Body language includes a range of nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, posture, and gestures. For example, a child who is happy might have a big smile on their face, while a child who is upset might slouch or cross their arms.
  • Tone of voice: Tone of voice refers to the way a child speaks, including pitch, volume, and inflection. A child who is excited might speak quickly and with a high-pitched voice, while a child who is sad might speak slowly and with a quiet voice.
  • Eye contact: Eye contact is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Children who are interested or engaged in a conversation will usually maintain eye contact. Children who are feeling anxious or uncomfortable may avoid it.
  • Touch: Touch can be a powerful nonverbal cue in communication. This could be a hug, a pat on the back, or holding hands.
  • Personal space: Personal space is the physical distance between people when interacting. Children who are feeling comfortable and safe will usually be happy to be close to the person they’re talking to. Children who are feeling anxious or threatened may prefer more personal space.

Benefits of recognizing kids nonverbal communication

  • Can clue us into big feelings our kids might not be talking about
  • Improves communication and prevents misunderstandings
  • May be a sign of developmental issues: In some cases, nonverbal communication can be a sign of developmental differences, such as autism or social anxiety. Paying attention to nonverbal cues can help us identify potential issues and seek support if needed.
A little girl is crying. When we understand children's nonverbal communication we will be able to address concerns more quickly.

A helpful example:

Your preschool child comes home from school upset and starts to cry. You are having a hard time getting them to explain what’s wrong. Instead of pressuring them to talk, you can focus on their nonverbal cues. Your child may be hunched over, avoiding eye contact, or shaking. These behaviors suggest they’re feeling scared or overwhelmed.

In this situation, you could try to comfort your child without words. This might be placing a comforting hand on their shoulder. It could be offering a hug, or simply sitting quietly with them. By paying attention to your child’s nonverbal cues, you show that you are there to support and comfort them without forcing them to talk before they are ready.

All languages require practice

Over time, by paying attention to nonverbal cues, you’ll start to understand what specific nonverbal cues mean for your child. For example, if your child tends to bite their lip or tap their foot when they’re anxious, you can recognize these cues and offer support before your child feels overwhelmed.

Being present

The more time you take simply observing your child, the better you are going to become at reading their unique non-verbal cues. Here are things you can be taking note of:

Happy children in a circle. Understanding our children's nonverbal communication will help us be able to comfort them more effectively .

Common nonverbal cues in children

  • Facial expressions: Children’s facial expressions can be incredibly expressive, and it’s often easy to tell what a child is feeling by looking at their face.
  • Posture: A child who is feeling confident or excited might stand up straight and tall. A child who is feeling sad or upset might slouch or hunch over.
  • Gestures: A child who is excited might jump up and down, while a child who is feeling nervous might fidget or wring their hands.
  • Tone of voice: Tone of voice can be a good indicator of a child’s emotional state. For example, a child who is feeling happy might speak with a higher pitch and speak more quickly, while a child who is feeling upset might speak more slowly and with a quieter voice.
  • Eye contact: A child who is feeling confident and engaged in a conversation will usually maintain eye contact, while a child who is feeling anxious or uncomfortable may avoid eye contact.
  • Touch: Touch can be a powerful nonverbal cue in communication. For example, a child who is feeling scared may reach out to hold a caregiver’s hand for comfort.
Four pictures of a boy making different expressions. As we catch on to our children's nonverbal communication style, we will be more in tune with their big feelings.

Positive nonverbal communication examples

Encouraging gestures: Gestures such as a thumbs up or a high five can communicate support, encouragement, and approval.

Mirroring speech patterns: Mirroring the other person’s speech patterns, such as their tone and pace, can communicate understanding and create a sense of rapport.

Facing the person: Facing the person directly can communicate interest, respect, and attentiveness.

Tilting the head: Tilting the head slightly can communicate interest and attentiveness.

Use of facial expressions: Expressions such as a gentle smile, raised eyebrows, or a nod can communicate agreement, support, and interest.

Vocal tones: Using a warm, friendly, and respectful tone of voice can communicate approachability and create a positive atmosphere in social interactions.

The boy crosses his arms with a grumpy look on his face. Understanding children's nonverbal communication can help us better meet their needs.

Negative nonverbal communication examples

Crossed arms: Crossing arms can communicate defensiveness, disinterest, or disagreement.

Eye-rolling: Rolling the eyes can communicate annoyance, disrespect, or disapproval.

Slouching: Slouching can communicate boredom, disinterest, or disrespect.

Turning away: Turning away or avoiding eye contact can communicate disinterest, discomfort, or disrespect.

Frowning: Frowning can communicate disapproval, anger, or unhappiness.

Tense body posture: Tense body posture, such as clenched fists or a stiff back, can communicate anger or discomfort.

Sighing: Sighing can communicate frustration, boredom, or disinterest.

Interrupting: Interrupting can communicate impatience, disrespect, or a lack of interest in what the other person is saying.

Monotone voice: A monotone voice can communicate boredom, disinterest, or lack of enthusiasm.

Negative facial expressions: Negative facial expressions such as a scowl, raised eyebrows, or a tight-lipped smile can communicate disapproval, anger, or unhappiness.

Cultural Considerations with non-verbal communication

Nonverbal communication can vary widely across cultures and can be influenced by a range of factors such as ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and socioeconomic status. Here are some cultural considerations to keep in mind when it comes to nonverbal communication:

  1. Personal space: Different cultures have different expectations for personal space. For example, some cultures prefer to stand closer to one another during conversations, while others prefer to maintain more distance.
  2. Eye contact: The amount of eye contact expected during conversations can vary across cultures. In some cultures, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of respect and attentiveness, while in others, it may be seen as a sign of aggression or disrespect.
  3. Gestures: Gestures such as handshakes, bows, or nods can have different meanings in different cultures. It’s important to be aware of these differences to avoid misunderstandings or unintentionally offending someone.
  4. Facial expressions: Facial expressions can also vary across cultures. For example, a smile may be interpreted as friendly and welcoming in some cultures, while in others, it may be seen as insincere or inappropriate.
  5. Touch: The appropriateness of touch can vary across cultures. Some cultures may be more comfortable with physical touch, while others may prefer to maintain more distance.
  6. Tone of voice: The tone of voice can also have different meanings in different cultures. For example, a loud or animated tone of voice may be seen as enthusiastic or passionate in one culture, while in another, it may be seen as aggressive or rude.

Tips for understanding and responding to nonverbal communication in children

  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage communication: Asking open-ended questions will help your kids feel more comfortable expressing themselves. It will also help you gain a better understanding of what your child is feeling or thinking.
  • Respond in a way that matches the child’s emotional state: Responding in a way that matches your child’s emotional state, such as using a calm tone of voice when your child is feeling anxious, can help them feel more supported and validated.
  • Be patient and give the child time to express themselves: Giving your kids time to express themselves can help them feel heard and understood.

Final Thoughts

Understanding our children’s nonverbal communication can help us build deeper connections with them. We will be able to communicate more effectively, and identify when they need our comfort. Paying attention to nonverbal cues can help us better understand and support our children’s emotional well-being. By practicing these skills, we will be better at understanding our children’s needs and creating a nurturing environment.

Looking for more ways to connect with your child? Check out these articles.

Love your children, trust yourself

Increasing your empathy with kids

How to make listening your superpower

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