Most parents are mindful of their words. But our nonverbals also speak volumes to our kids.
In fact, we’re communicating all the time, often without even thinking about it. Consider the last time you were with your kids at a piano recital or religious service. You know, one where they really had to stay quiet. When the squirming began, you might have been able to give a look or a touch that said, “This event is very important to me, and I need you to sit still, but I love having you here with me. It won’t be too much longer.”
Or, you might have pulled out a completely different look, one with eyebrows raised as high as possible that kind of means the opposite of “I love having you here with me.”
Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond. Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.
I'm not saying there won't be times when you'll get completely exasperated with your kids. Or that they won't misread something you're communicating and get upset. Mistakes will be made on both sides of the relationship, of course. But we can still be intentional about the messages that we're sending.
Here are four things you do not want—and four more that you do want—to be saying to your kids, even when you don’t utter a word.
Nonverbal Messages You DON’T Want to Send:
A deep, huffy sigh = exasperation.
The message: You wear me out. I can’t stand you right now, and I blame you for making things so hard on me.
A clenched jaw or gritted teeth = fury.
The message: I am furious with you and could explode at any moment. I’m unpredictable right now. Be afraid, very afraid. I’m not really in control of myself, and this is how people act when they are really mad.
Frantic rushing around = stress.
The message: Don’t talk to me right now—and if you do, make it quick. I’m fragile at this moment, so if you stress me out any further, I might lose it. You'd better walk on eggshells and not make my life any harder.
The message: You better do what I say—and now! I don’t care how you feel or what the circumstances are. I’m going to fight until I win, and I’ll continue to escalate and become more aggressive until I do. Power, control and aggression are how I get what I want here.
Nonverbal Messages You DO Want to Send:
A big ol’ squinty-eyed smile = delight.
The message: I think you are fantastic, and you fill me with joy. You bring fullness and wonder into my world, and I love being with you.
An authentic belly laugh = appreciation.
The message: You are funny and clever, and I enjoy you. I want to join with you in how you see things. You have my attention, and I’m having fun with you.
A locked-in, responsive look = empathy/compassion.
The message: What you’re sharing with me right now is crucial—more important than anything going on around us, more important even than anything I could be saying right now. I hear that you’re really upset, and all I want to do at this moment is listen to you and be present—so I can comfort you the best I can.
A loving touch = support/camaraderie.
The message: I know you face a big day at school with challenges I’m not always aware of, but this little shoulder massage while you eat your Lucky Charms says that I’ll be thinking of you, missing you, and eager to see you again this afternoon. And this Family-Movie-Night foot rub while we watch Monsters Inc.—for the sixth time—says that although I won’t always have just the right words to say, I will always be here for you.