By Amber Chesser, MS, LPC, NCC – STARRY Family Engagement Specialist
It was 5:30 pm on a weeknight and my family was having a busy evening. I was rushing to finish dinner and quickly get it on the table. All of the sudden I hear from the bathroom someone yelling. Immediately my blood pressure rises as I stop what I’m doing to investigate. Slowly I open the door and see something wet all over the floor. My daughter had a potty accident right in front of the toilet and the floor was covered.
My brain begins going a million directions as I decide how to pause dinner, clean my daughter, clean the floor and manage the three other kiddos. My jaw is clenched, my brow furrowed as a begin telling my daughter to take her clothing off. As I am still making a game plan my daughter said, “Mommy, sometimes you say ‘It’s ok’.”
As her words broke through my fog of frustration, I realized that I had not once checked in with her. Although I had not used any mean words or even raised the volume of my voice, all of my other bodily signals pointed towards anger, frustration and my four-year-old felt these signals pointed to her.
“Nonverbal communication is so powerful. Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said.” (Siegel & Bryson, 2016, p.121).
Dan Siegel talks about seven different nonverbal signals. They are eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gestures, timing, and intensity. As I reflect on these different areas of nonverbal communication I realize how many different ways we send messages to people around us. It’s way more complicated than just my words and my volume. What are my arms doing, how is my body positioned, how fast am I talking? All of these things are clues to the person in front of me and it might not be sending the message I want. If my body language is sending a threatening message, my child’s body will respond as such.
I was at a mothers’ group with five or six other mother’s and each with a few children. As one mother was sharing with the group, her two-year-old son was rolling a car on the ground right next to her with his body lying up against her leg. Another child walked by him and barely touched his leg. The boy on the ground turned his face to his mother, furrowed his brow and looked like he might begin to cry. His mother looked down at him, gave a gentle nod and a soft rub on the back, and he calmed and continued to roll his car. All of his mother’s nonverbals communicated that she saw him and empathized with him. If she had instead given him a glaring look and no gentle touch, it is possible he would have escalated and began to cry or become upset. He would have received a message that said “I don’t care what’s going on with you” but instead his mother’s nonverbal communication connected her to him and allowed him to regulate what he was feeling. I smiled at my friend as I watched this interaction. Later she explained that with this child, if she only acknowledges that she sees him and what happened he will not escalate and can remain calm. What wonderful insight!
But the bottom line is that we can be intentional about the verbal and nonverbal message we’re sending, especially when we’re trying to connect with our children in a difficult moment.” (Siegel & Bryson, 2016, p.126).
Thinking about our own nonverbal communication is not about perfection. It is not about controlling every aspect of ourselves so that no unplanned message slips out. It is about awareness and intentionality. In all things I want my children to know my love for them never wavers and I do not want my nonverbals to undermine that. I am so grateful my daughter spoke up and gave me the opportunity to repair and reconnect with her.
Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T. (2016). No-Drama Discipline. New York: Random House.