I'm All Ears: “Listening” to Body Language and Understanding Toddlers


Welcome to the “I’m All Ears” Blog Series with Therapist Jan Pelletier from Hopeful Horizons! This three-part series will talk about parents’ use of listening. With parents at home every day with kids, we understand that anxiety and frustrations are running high! We hope this will help provide you with some techniques and ideas for managing the next few weeks.

Part Three: "Listening" to Body Language and Understanding Toddlers

In parts one and two of this three-part blog, we examined the various ways that parents can actively listen to their children. We discussed how listening to our children’s specific language and reflecting and validating their words and feelings contributes to their overall feelings of safety, connection and love. We also considered what “thought traps” are, what they sound like and how we can listen to help our children identify unhelpful thoughts, leading to more positive outcomes.

But what if we are parents of babies, toddlers or even preschool children? Can we listen if our children have not yet developed the verbal skills necessary to fully convey a thought or feeling?

While the act of listening implies that there is something to be heard, there is more to the story. Children communicate needs long before they can master speech – just ask the new parent of a hungry infant!

Emotional development begins immediately at birth with newborns capable of feeling discomfort and contentment. By the age of two, children have developed the ability to express a variety of emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy and guilt. Expressing emotions does not equate to identifying them, and appropriately coping with anger and fear is not commonly expected of a toddler in our modern society. So how, as parents, can we identify what our children are feeling, so we know how to help?

Paying attention to body language to “listen” to our children presents us with an abundance of information and awards us with a great way to know our children. While we are the experts when it comes to our own children, there are four common signals that parents often get wrong. Misunderstanding a signal will have a direct effect not only on our ability to “hear” what the child is communicating but also on how we respond. Recognizing these signals and your response to them can help you be in better tune with your toddler. In the August 2010 issue of Parent Magazine, Robin Westin lays out these silent signals and includes ways to decode behaviors.

Your child stands with his arms folded in front of a new toy.

What you think it means: Forget it! I'm not interested!

What it probably means: I feel apprehensive!

“Hard to believe, but one little arm cross can have more than 67 interpretations,” says body-language expert Patti Wood, author of Success Signals. “But for a toddler, it's most likely a sign that he's feeling uneasy.” Your child might not be able to say, “I don't want this unfamiliar rocking horse near me,” for example, but he can shield himself from it by folding his arms to create a protective barrier. Children this age love to explore new things, so if he seems uninterested in something, he may just be getting his courage up.

Your Next Move: If he's hesitant to try the new rocking horse, move on for now. Later, you can encourage him to play with it again by using your own body language to show that you like the toy: Move it slowly with your hand, or mimic riding it by standing over it and saying, “Wow, this is so much fun!” But don't force him to get on it, which could turn his apprehension into a full-blown fear and lead to a tantrum. “When he feels safe and curious enough, he'll be willing to give it a shot,” explains Wood.

Instead of saying hello to Aunt Sara, your kid yanks her shirt over her head.

What you think it means: I don’t want to see her!

What it probably means: I don’t want her to see me!

Your child’s reaction is probably more about her than her aunt. First, try to peek at her face. If she's smiling, she could just be playing. “But if she looks unhappy, she might be hiding because she's feeling a sudden wave of wariness,” says Dr. Sossin. Toddlers are dealing with lots of new emotions, and they don't always know how to express them.

Your next move: Don't make a big deal out of it. You may be tempted to say, “Oh, she's just shy,” to make her aunt feel better, but avoid labeling your kid’s behavior in front of her. Try to describe what's happening: “Looks like you're a bit unsure. Let's give you a little time, and you can join us when you want.” Then, keep it upbeat with Aunt Sara to show that she’s fun to be around.

When you come into the room, your 2 1/2-year-old won't look you in the eye.

What you think it means: I did something bad (and I don't want you to know about it).

What it probably means: I feel bad about something I did.

Your child's lack of eye contact isn't always a sign that he's trying to be sneaky. Along with shyness, he's also starting to deal with feelings of shame and remorse – that’s good: A recent University of Iowa study showed that two-year-olds who felt badly about acting up had fewer behavioral problems later on than those who didn't.

Your Next Move: Stay calm if it seems like your kid is hiding something. Your first thought might be to search for the trail of cookie crumbs or some other quasi-disaster, but he may simply be upset that he knocked over his sister's block tower. “Whatever the case, the best way to respond is to keep it positive,” says Alan Greene, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. If you know what went wrong, point it out and tell him not to do it again. If you're not sure, say, “I know something's happened and it's okay – I love you,” says Dr. Greene. This way, he'll feel secure enough not to try to hide things from you.

Your once-clingy one-year-old pushes or runs away from you.

What you think it means: Get away from me!

What it probably means: I can do it by myself!

What may seem like a diss is actually good news: “Your kid is starting to trust herself and the world around her,” explains Rahil Briggs, Psy.D, a psychologist at Montefiore Children's Hospital, in New York City.

Your Next Move: Try not to take it personally – your can-do child still needs you. If she wants to examine a tree in the park, let her touch the bark or smell the leaves. Avoid stepping in unless she's doing something dangerous, such as picking up a sharp branch. Think of yourself as a gas station and your child as a car, suggests Dr. Briggs. “When she needs reassurance, she'll zoom into the safety of your arms for emotional refueling,” he says.

We hope these slight variations in how you “listen” to your toddler’s body language will help you connect even deeper with your child!

Part One: Listening to Help Your Child Feel Safe

Part Two: Listening for Your Child's Unhealthy Thoughts

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