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What is Your Body Language Saying to Your Child?

What is Your Body Language Saying to your Child?

This is an article about being what I like to call ‘matchy-match’  It’s not about how to match your outfit or even about match-making… it’s about parenting and how you need to ‘matchy match’ if you want your kids to listen to you.

‘What is she talking about?’ You may be thinking. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s not what you say to your child, but how you say it that determines whether they will listen to you or not. If you ask your child to stop something but you have a slight smirk on your face, I can guarantee you they will not stop. If you ask your child to stop throwing their toys but you have playful body language as though you’re ready to catch the airborne toy, I can promise you they will continue to throw the toys.
Children are hard-wired to be great at reading facial expressions and body language to understand the world around them even before they understand language or can communicate themselves. So, in their brains, body language trumps the words you use every time. If what you’re saying is ‘matchy match’ with your face and body – then great they will be more likely to follow your instruction. However, if they don’t match then you’re in for a hard time trying to get them to do the right thing.

I had a mum and son come to see me a while ago in therapy and she could not understand why her son would consistently disobey the simple instructions she would ask of him. She was a very open mum who was willing to try anything I asked of her. So, even though she was hesitant when I asked her if she’d be willing for me to videotape her interacting with her son so that we could then look back at the video together to see if we could work out what was going on, she agreed. So that is exactly what we did. We videotaped her and her son for a short period of time just doing what they do naturally. When we watched it back together we saw some really lovely interactions; mum playing with her son, mum and son having lovely conversations, son involving mum in some imaginary play and so on. Then came pack up time; mum asked her son to pack up the toys and everything went downhill from there. Mum turned to me exasperated. “I told him he needed to pack up the toys though!” and “I even said that if he didn’t stop throwing the toys and pulling them out of the boxes he’d have a punishment”. I didn’t say anything to mum, but asked her to re-watch the tape. We watched it over a number of times and eventually she turned to me and said “hey, am I smiling while I tell him to stop throwing the toys?” and “Listen to how I said that, it actually sounded like I was joking around with him and not being completely serious”. She had hit the nail on the head. Her son had heard the words that she used, but because of mums tone of voice and the smile on her face, these all important aspects of body language ‘trumped’ her words and he continued to misbehave.

Don’t underestimate the power of your facial expressions, your body language and the tone of your voice – they have to all ‘matchy match’ for it to register with your children. What makes this more difficult, is that as adults we start to lose touch with what we do with our face, body and voice because a lot of it has become habit or second nature. So, if your child consistently does not listen to your instructions you may have to take a bit of time out and think about whether you’re being ‘matchy match’. You don’t have to go to the extent of videotaping yourself to determine what might be your problem area. You could ask your partner or family or friends what they think or notice, or even (and yes this does sound lame, but it works!) practice in front of the mirror what you would say to your child and see if you can catch anything you do that is throwing off your ‘matchy match’.

Getting children to listen to instructions is always a hard ask, but I will bet that if you start to notice, be aware and change so that as a parent you matchy match more often with your requests, the level of listening in your house will improve dramatically!
Stefanie Schwartz is a Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist & founder of GroupWorx Psychology. GroupWorx offers bulk billed group therapy programs for children and young people in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and FREE online child psychology advice. Visit for more information.

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