Raise your hand if you would prefer more peace and less conflict in your relationships and in your home. Wouldn’t life be easier if you could eliminate struggles over homework, chores, bedtime, food, clothes, curfews, or… (Fill in your own conflict of choice)? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for preventing meltdowns, getting along, or making your child do what you want. However, research tells us that compassionate and empathic parenting tends to foster emotional intelligence, cooperation, and a healthier sense of self while a coercive, punitive approach may enforce temporary compliance, but usually evokes more conflict, resistance, and defiance in the long run.
Recently we’ve learned that our biology dictates our responses much more than we realize. Primed by more primitive, non-verbal parts of the brain, the finely tuned nervous system we inherited from our ancestors assesses potential threats automatically and instantaneously. We start discerning safe from unsafe long before we can walk and talk. Since our anger, stress, and anxiety can inadvertently set off our child’s alarm system, the best way to teach children how to handle frustrations and sooth strong emotions really is to “Be the Change” we’d like to see in our relationships. When we become the calm within the storm we role model empathy and self-awareness and provide a safe haven for our children to relax and let down their neurological guard.
Our innate and instantaneous ability to read non-verbal signals explains how facial expressions, physical gestures, and body posture speak louder than words. We can provide our children with the safety and connection they need to thrive simply by paying more attention to the non-verbal messages we’re sending. Body language clues you into your child’s needs, feelings, and motivations as well. Apply this awareness consistently to improve your relationships without saying a word.
Alignment: Check out what’s really going on when non-verbal signals do not match the spoken message. For instance, if your child says she wants to go to the party while hanging her head or slouching in her seat, there may be more to the story. You may also want to get a second opinion if you often find yourself saying “yes” through clenched teeth.
Voice: I cringe whenever I hear someone speak to a child with a tone of voice that sounds like they are scolding a dog: “Fido, come here right now!” Notice how your thoughts, mood, and intent impact your tone and volume. Can you remain loving and accepting of your child even when you are frustrated by a challenging behavior or do you become critical and punitive and inflict a harsh sentence in order to get what you want or to teach your child a lesson?
Pace: Unfortunately, everyone does not operate at your ideal pace, especially your children. Respect your child’s pace by anticipating extra time for transitions and prevent the aggravation of rushing. If you feel rushed by your child, practice setting clear expectations that you can agree on. “We can leave for the playground when…” Constantly hurrying ourselves and our children fuels stress and anxiety.
Space: The desire for physical closeness varies from person to person and from time to time. In particular, toddlers and teens may vacillate between wanting close contact and craving more distance as they establish independence. Strike a balance by remaining open and available for contact without crowding, overreaching or becoming distant and unavailable. Act on signs of receptivity for closeness: open arms, playful gestures, and requests for togetherness.
Face: Children feel seen and heard when you communicate at their level and friendly eye contact signals your undivided attention. If you scowl when you’re mad your child learns to read your disapproval on your face and may feel shame and embarrassment for making mistakes. Picture the loving warmth a mother sends through smiling eyes as she tenderly cradles her infant. When you need a reminder, try looking at your child’s baby pictures to resurrect tender loving feelings.
Body: How would you like to be the recipient of a finger pointing, hands-on-hips, or clenched fist rampage? Non-loving physical touch or gestures such as door slamming, throwing, and hitting prime the pump for disobedience and retaliation. Learn to manage your anger and remain calm in order to preserve your relationships. You can sense signs of resistance whenever your child pushes, leans, turns, or runs away. Practice identifying and addressing whatever unexpressed feelings and needs may be underlying the resistant behavior.
Gestures: Touch is a great way to show your love and concern. An arm around the shoulders signals, “I’m here, I care.” An open-armed, open-hearted welcome says, “I love you just the way you are.” Holding hands, bear hugs, or a comfy cuddle in a warm lap say, “Everything’s okay, I love you.” A foot or shoulder massage conveys to your partner, “I appreciate you, you can relax now.”
Posture: Your physical availability implies your emotional availability. Facing front or turning away tells someone whether you are present or not. Posture can also indicate how you or your child may be feeling: relaxed and at ease or slouched and defeated. Shifts in your posture indicate whether you remain attentive or become distracted or dismissive.
At any moment, we can change the tone of our interactions just by noticing the unspoken messages we are sending and by becoming more sensitive to the information we receive from the body language of our loved ones. These skills can be learned by anyone and applied any where at any time. All we have to do is care enough to pay attention to the impact of our behavior on others and practice sending more peaceful, loving messages.