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Nonverbal communication: body language and tone of voice

2-8 years

When you communicate with your child, a lot of your communication is without words. Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, body language, body contact, eye contact, personal space and tone of voice.

Why nonverbal communication is important

Positive nonverbal communication can improve your relationship with your child and boost emotional connections in your family. Most children love being hugged and kissed, for example. This warm and caring body language sends the nonverbal message that you want to be close to your child.

Negative nonverbal communication – for example, a grumpy tone of voice or a frown – when you’re doing something fun together might send the message that you don’t really want to be there. Children can feel rejected or let down if this happens consistently.

This means nonverbal communication is important for strengthening your verbal messages to your child. It can be as simple as stopping and giving your child your full attention when you ask how his day at school has been. This sends him the message that you’re really interested and you care.

When your nonverbal communication sends a different message from your words, your child is more likely to believe the nonverbal communication. So if you ask your child how her day has been without stopping to hear her answer, she’s likely to think that you’re not really interested.

Your nonverbal communication is also important for teaching your child how to relate to and get along with other people, which is an important skill for life. For example, if you use warm and caring body language towards your child, it teaches your child how to express love. If you stop what you’re doing to listen to your child talk about his day, it shows him how to give people his full attention too.

Using body language and tone of voice to improve communication

Body language and tone of voice are key parts of nonverbal communication. You can use them to send positive nonverbal messages and reinforce what you’re saying to your child.

Here are some ideas:

  • Touch your child’s arm to let your child know you’re interested and you care about what she’s saying or doing.
  • Turn to face your child and use lots of eye contact. This says, ‘I’m giving you my full attention’ and ‘You’re important to me’.
  • Bend down to your child’s level. This shows you want to be close and helps your child feel more secure. It also helps with eye contact, especially for younger children.
  • ‘Mirror’ your child. This means using the same facial expression or tone of voice as your child. It can show him that you’re trying to understand his feelings. For example, if your child smiles at you, smile back. If he’s sad, nod your head and look a bit sad yourself.
  • Use a pleasant tone of voice and a relaxed body posture and facial expression when you talk with your child. This helps your child see you as open and ready to listen. And it also makes it easy for your child to tell the difference when you’re not happy with her behaviour.
  • Give your child lots of cuddles!

Improving nonverbal communication as a family

Games and family challenges can be a fun way to develop your understanding of nonverbal communication as a family.

For example, you could try video-recording a family conversation and then watch it together. See who can spot the nonverbal communication like touches, hugs, gestures, eye contact and so on. You can ask, ‘How can we tell Dad is getting impatient? Look how he’s standing. Look at his face’.

Then you could talk about whether the body language matches the words. If you see something that you don’t like about the way you’re communicating, you could try to change this in the future. This might be something like not looking at your child when he’s talking.

Here are more tips:

  • Watch a TV show with the sound off and see whether you and your child can work out what’s happening.
  • Take turns at dinner practising different tones of voice – for example, saying, ‘I would like the salad please’ in a grumpy tone and then in a gentle tone.
  • Draw pictures of faces with your child, or use toys to act out emotions. This can help your child learn about how we often express feelings without words, and about how to recognise other people’s feelings.
The Disney movie Inside Out can help children understand and talk about feelings and how we express them without words. You could watch it as a family and then talk about it afterwards. 

Improving your child’s nonverbal communication

Your child learns about nonverbal communication by watching you and your nonverbal communication. You can also help your child with nonverbal communication in other ways.

For example, your child might be standing very close to a friend and the friend might look uncomfortable, or start stepping back.

You could gently remind your child to give her friend some space – for example, ‘Carly, let’s give Jacob a bit more room by taking a step back. Well done, Jacob’s got more space now’. If you notice your child doing what you’ve asked at another time, you can praise her. For example, ‘Carly, I like the way you gave Emile some space to open his presents at the party’.

Using nonverbal communication to guide your child’s behaviour

Nonverbal communication can be handy at times when distance or noise makes it hard to talk. For example, you might give your child a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ when he gets an award at school or helps a friend in the playground.

Likewise, if you see your child behaving in a way you don’t like, you can use your facial expression and body language to send a message. For example, you might just shake your head or give a ‘thumbs down’.

You can also use nonverbal communication to reinforce your words when your child is behaving in a difficult way. For example, if you need your child to stop and listen, you could try:

  • speaking in a clear, firm tone – for example, ‘Jaz, you’re being too rough with your friends. Please keep your hands to yourself’
  • maintaining consistent eye contact and tone of voice
  • bending down to your child’s level
  • clasping your child’s hand to get her attention if she doesn’t look up.

It can be hard to match your nonverbal communication and your words when your child does or says something that’s funny but also unacceptable – for example, if a young child says ‘Mummy’s a poo-head’ or an older child repeats something rude an adult has said.

It’s tempting to laugh, but that sends a mixed message. Your child will be more likely to understand that this behaviour isn’t acceptable if your words and your nonverbal signals match up. So try keeping a straight face and using a firm tone to say something like ‘In our family we speak to each other politely’.

Nonverbal communication and children with additional needs

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other additional needs can have trouble with communication, including nonverbal communication. For example, children with ASD often need to be taught about eye contact. You can do this by holding objects you know your child wants right in front of your eyes. Keep doing this until your child automatically looks up when he wants something.

Some children also have sensory sensitivities and might find body contact like hugging difficult. These children might be more comfortable with other expressions of warmth or approval – for example, you could clap, wink or give a thumbs-up. Try to acknowledge any contact children do make, even if it doesn’t seem appropriate. For example, if they poke you, turn it into a high-five.

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Last updated or reviewed
05-06-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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