We know our kids love us, but it can be hard to read what they’re feeling, especially when they’re not old enough to verbalize what’s running through their budding brain. This makes body language clues an important part of making sure your kid is happy, healthy and heard.
“Children don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings, needs and wants that adults do, so it is vital for parents to pay attention to their nonverbal cues to understand their child’s experiences. While it might be easy for you as an adult to explain that you are frustrated, tired or lonely, children might express these feelings through tears, yelling or acting out behaviorally,” explains school counselor and doctoral student in family therapy, Emily Corbin. She adds that the prefrontal cortex, which helps us regulate emotion, isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s, which can make kids appear irrational, emotional and impulsive during childhood and adolescence. “Paying attention to your child’s body language can help you connect to their needs and feelings, allowing your child to feel safe, loved and understood.”
Here’s how to read the clues your child is giving you without saying a word:
Age 2 to 3
The terrible twos don’t just last for a year, but for much of a child’s early developmental years. Even if you can’t get a word in when they’re flipping out because they wanted the purple cup instead of the blue one, you can get a hint of what they’re trying to express by watching for these movements.
They’re flapping their arms.
Corbin says because preschool kids often struggle with self-control, separation anxiety and a variety of fears (like the dark, animals or water), they often get overwhelmed in new situations or when they feel disconnected. If your child flaps their arms as if they’re learning to fly, this is them taking the fight or flight response quite literally.
“An important thing for parents to remember during a young child’s distress tantrum is that they are not able to talk nor listen while they are this upset,” says Corbin. “Instead, a calm parent or caregiver can lovingly hold the kid to help them regulate their intense and often scary emotions. The key here is that the adult must also feel calm to help calm the child’s immature response system — a challenging ask when the tantrum is happening in the middle of a grocery store.”
They’re tugging on you.
Child psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Stephanie O’Leary says pulling on you is your child’s way of telling you they’re uncomfortable. “Kids in this age range continue to explore the world with their bodies, so if your child grabs at something or tugs on your arm to get your attention, take a breath before interpreting those actions as aggressive or disrespectful,” she explains. “Instead, keep in mind that when your child is excited, frustrated, sick or tired, he or she will tend to use their body more to communicate.” In these moments, your best response is to try to articulate what your child is trying to communicate, like asking, “You want me to come with you?” or “You want to have that toy right now?”
Age 4 to 6
Hopefully, now your kid is having fewer freak-outs and is doing a better job of talking through their wants and needs as well as responding to discipline. Even so, this is a difficult stage, says Corbin, because while kids might have the ability to chat with you, they might not be able to label “sad” or “angry” in a way you can understand. This is what to look for.
They’re burying their face in your legs and clinging to you.
When your child is experiencing a bout of separation anxiety or refusing to do something without giving you a reason why, it may be because they’re unable to digest and express an emotion. Corbin takes a note out of Dan Siegel’s book, The Whole-Brain Child, by suggesting his “name it to tame it” method. “If you’re dropping your child off for the first day of school or camp or practice, and they are burying their face in your leg and clinging onto you for dear life, you should kneel down to eye level with them and say something like ‘Sometimes we feel worried when we go somewhere new. I’m wondering if you’re feeling a little nervous,'” she suggests. “Using feeling words can help them feel a little control over their uncomfortable feeling and helps to facilitate a conversation so they can express what they might need in that moment.”
Age 7 to 9
When your child reaches this stage, their mannerisms and reactions are impacted by more people than just family members. From teachers and friends to coaches and strangers, they’re picking up on more than you realize.
They do something specific when they lie.
With maturity, comes learned negative behavior from siblings or other kids in the playground. According to O’Leary, one way to set yourself up for success is to practice looking for patterns. “One thing parents can begin to note is a child’s tell, or a body movement or gesture that is often displayed when your child is being dishonest,” she explains. “Here, the point is not to swoop in like judge and jury, but to let your child know that you expect the truth by providing opportunities for a do-over. It’s also important to pay attention to how your child uses body language with peers and to provide gentle opportunities to explore how others might feel if they see a disgusted face or a chastising look that your child may be unaware they are giving.”
Clinical counselor and movement therapist Erica Hornthal says that when your child is fidgety or restless, it could be an indication that they’re struggling with being upfront about something or are in an uncomfortable situation and haven’t decided if they’re going to speak up or be silent. In this instance, you might encourage your child to practice strong movements that build their self-confidence — like kicking or throwing a ball or an impromptu dance-it-out session. Because they’re still developing a sense of industry and skill, Hornthal says these subtle suggestions will help them build their gusto.