Martha Graham, a famed dancer and choreographer who knew plenty about nonverbal communication, once said, "The body never lies." Anyone who has ever seen a teenage girl roll her eyes knows the accuracy of that statement. No matter how sweet a teen's words are, body language always gives away the truth.
Ronda Reyna, a licensed specialist in school psychology with more than 10 years' experience in Houston area public schools, notes that there is often "incongruence between the verbal and the nonverbal." Coping with the inconsistencies of her peers' nonverbal communication can be a difficult task for any teen, and especially challenging for a mom who is trying to get to the bottom of why her daughter doesn't socialize with her two best friends any longer.
Reyna notes that common facial expressions that communicate rejection in children and adolescents are "eye-rolling, completely averting eye gaze and of course, your garden variety 'mean look.' " Teens may also invade the space of other youths, a communication that is often intended to be intimidating. "This type of phenomenon extends across cultures, across regions and across countries," Reyna explains. Not all nonverbal communication is mean-spirited, however. Teens might shift their stance to make room for a newcomer to enter a group or give a welcoming smile.
As a parent, you'll want to be aware of one of the most troubling situations your teen can face -- relational aggression. Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool for relational aggressors, who often use subtle techniques, such as a raised eyebrow or sidelong look, to make a peer feel rejected or excluded. Technology raises the bar for nonverbal aggression, where teens can use photos and social networks to make a peer's life a misery.
If your teen comes to you and says, "Tonya and Margaret don't like me anymore," ask questions. While your teen might say she doesn't know, ask her to identify the specific behaviors that are making her uncomfortable. "Relational aggression occurs in some youth younger than teens, as well," warns Reyna, who advises giving teens an "open door to share their experience openly. Adults need to make themselves more aware of the dynamics between certain peers or groups of peers and pay closer attention," Reyna says, noting that "these concerns need to be taken seriously."
Let your teen know that you understand nonverbal communication can be confusing. Reyna points out that "a youth may ply another with words to make themselves present and vulnerable to them or to a group but use nonverbals as rejection messages. This is distressing to teens because of the lack of clarity." Talk to your teenage about mixed messages and make sure he knows that he's not imagining any relational aggression that's taking place. Validating his experience can help him to better trust his instincts when confronted with tricky social interactions.
Teens who use nonverbal communication to intimidate or exclude others must be confronted with their behavior. Reyna notes that "savvy relational aggressors know how to make themselves look harmless to those in authority, and the nonverbal messages, which are subversive, can be hard to prove."
Confronting teens about harmful nonverbal communication may be difficult, but it's not impossible. You can say, "Emma, what message do you think Marilyn received when you told her 'happy birthday' without a smile on your face?" Teens might initially deny their behavior, but when repeatedly called out on nonverbal aggression, they often begin to realize that others are aware of their passive-aggressive actions.