Listening with Our Eyes: How to Respond to Your Child’s Body Language

When Body Language Tips Parents Off


Sometimes kids just don’t talk about what’s cooking in their minds. They may be troubled, upset with something and need some guidance, but they’re embarrassed, confused, lost, or maybe just unaware that talking would help. So how do we even know something’s going on?

It’s the body language speaking that we need to be attuned to. We need to catch with those observing eyes of ours something a bit unusual, off-kilter, or unexplained in the way our child looks, moves, or appears.

What is Body Language?

Body language is that unspoken communication that is revealed in crinkled eyes, raised, eyebrows, a furrowed brow or pursed lips. But it’s not only facial expressions that give tell-tale signs of something going on. Sometimes a child walks around with a slower gait than usual. Or, he seems to react with suddenness to ordinary things like a door that closes with a bit of a slam or the TV advertisements that come on too loudly. When your child seems to react too strongly with her body movements, something might be happening inside of her that she isn’t able to explain though she needs or even wants to.


How Do We Respond to Body Language?

1. Be Respectful.
Body language is subtle. The child is not ready to speak. So we must be respectful of the child’s emotional space and not barge in just because we see a tense expression.

2. Be Attentive.
Just because your child isn’t ready to speak, doesn’t mean we have to be silent. A gentle comment about your child’s expression may be just enough to open a door to future understanding: “Hey, you look a bit concerned about something.”

3. Be Available.
If your child seems tense from the way she holds her body with her arms folded tightly or the way she raises her shoulders with suddenness at a slight sound or the way she slumps on the couch—simply hang around. Being in her vicinity a bit more than usual may just tip the scales in terms of her feeling able to confide in you.

4. Trust Your Instincts.
Sometimes, you need to take the plunge as a parent. If too many days seem to go by with hints that something’s not going right for your child, you may have to be the one to openly initiate contact. Sensitively point out to your son that you’ve been noticing he seems out of sorts and you’re glad to chat whenever he might want to.

5. Maintain Regard for Privacy
If you have offered the invitation to talk in these various ways, then it is time to keep your worry to yourself for a while longer. Kids don’t talk to overbearing parents. That just pushes them away further. So we have to mind our concerns, bear up to our own anxieties, and give our child, especially our teens, their privacy. Whatever it is, it may be something your child tells to a friend, not a parent. Ah—h-h-h. So it goes!

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst whose upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Find Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, will be released in October , 2015. The book will have a selection of stories about mothers and fathers who discover wisdom in a new parenting mindset.