Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar - April 21 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly

















Home and Family
Body Language - Part One
Prepared for Yated by R. GIL

Children send us wordless messages even before they learn to speak. Actually 97% of communication between people is non- verbal. How can we know if the child is upset, confused or afraid? How can we understand their thoughts by observing their eyes, body movements, tone of voice? "Children's body language" can help us understand children better.

Parents often feel that there is a sort of `short circuit' in their communications which prevents them from understanding their children's feelings. "Why don't you say what you want ?" "Maybe you'll talk instead of crying all the time?" A frustrated mother will try to straighten things out without realizing that this will probably cause a greater breach in their relations.

Children cannot always express their feelings, pains, or needs in so many words. Sometimes the only way a child can make himself understood is through tears, raising his voice and body movements.

Sogen Kiliam, a British specialist in the field of `neurolinguistics' which deals with body language, claims that most misunderstandings between parents and children, as well as between adults, stem from the same source: an attempt to communicate exclusively in a spoken language. No one makes an effort to understand other `languages', i.e. body language - movement of the eyes, the hands, etc. Yet, she claims, 97% of communication between people is non- verbal. In school a great deal of time is set aside for teaching linguistic skills - reading, writing and speaking - while ignoring non- verbal means of expression.

Even before the child learns to speak, he relates to the world in various ways: with sounds, movement, facial expression, posture, appearance and touch. Therefore, someone who relates only to words will have difficulty understanding what the child really wants. Ms. Kiliam authored "Children's Body Language", a guide for every parent interested in improving communications with his children. The book researched in Europe and the U.S. with the participation of many families, includes the writer's personal findings, as well as photographs of children in `real' varied situations. Kiliam promises far-ranging results to those who finish the "accelerated course" such as: reading the child's thoughts, knowing if he tells the truth, identification of problems, ways to help him socially and with his studies. As with all researchers who see the world through the eyes of their research, we must not take her all-encompassing view as necessarily true. One of the disadvantages of her system is that parents have to be aware 24 hours a day of their children's every movement - a near impossible task for most parents who are busy with work, house, and other children. However there is a certain amount of advice offered which may really prove useful and widen our horizons.

As mentioned, the difficulty is that the parent is required to observe every twitch, movement, sigh, etc. Awareness is the key word. Even a laugh is considered significant. Changes in skin color are also important and may express fear or worry about something specific. Even a simple movement like standing on one foot and then another can express confusion or fear of someone. In other words, be aware and you'll always be a few steps ahead.

Her first rule: gather information concerning movements, through all the senses. Secondly: interpret the data correctly. Thirdly: learn to speak with the child in the same language. This will help gain his confidence and he'll feel understood. Fourth rule: self awareness, meaning, set a personal example - there's nothing more important to make the delicate system work. Every facial expression and winning smile has an influence on the child and gives him an example to follow and imitate. Sometimes a loud voice, a long face, a raised hand can ruin things more than a thousand angry words or other mistakes which are commonly made in child education.

If you as parents feel that all this is too high pressured for you - you're not to blame. It takes above-average strength to carry out the program. On the other hand, it may be useful to adopt certain suggestions.


Every parent dreams of being able to interpret his children's messages. Children give us clues already from a very young age. The experts call them `sign symbols' - movements, breathing and other expressions which represent thought signals. A fist, for example, is a sign of distress according to Kiliam. An open palm: readiness to cooperate. A child who moves his hands slowly and erratically after being asked to carry out a task and furrows his brow shows that the instructions are not clear in his head and that he is confused. It's enough to tell him: Come, let's see if we can make some order here. Also move your hands erratically as he did to show that you understood his non-verbal message and he'll be ready to cooperate and organize his thoughts.

Kiliam mentions 3 main signs to look for: head and eye movements signify the type of thought processes used by the child. For example, if he culls information from appearances - he is a visual type, if voices are important, then he is a sound-type etc. Movements and gestures teach us about details and organization of important information. The shape of his eyes, eyebrows mouth and hands all express his feelings.

It's also possible to discover whether the child is creative or `blocked'. Comfortable, open movements, a serious expression and a healthy skin tone, as well as eye movements to the right are gestures which show that the child is imagining pictures and sounds, and inform us that this is a creative child.

A stubborn posture, on the other hand, small, hesitant movements, poor verbal communication or critical comments, eyes cast downwards, show us blocked creativity and resulting lack of self-confidence.


Children are confused when there is a lack of harmony in their emotions. This comes about when parents use two different languages: the words express one thing and the eyes another; the tone of voice isn't in accordance with the message. A child who receives conflicting information will be confused and frightened. Feelings have to be expressed clearly. When a parent is angry and tries to hide the fact behind a friendly face, this mixes the child up. And if when he asks, "Ima are you angry at me?" and he receives an embarrassed answer denying this, he feels lost altogether. Children have difficulty understanding when people put up a front, and may cry if they are confused.

Calm words and locked fists; happy words and teary eyes; eyes which belie what the words express - like red eyes and a smiling mouth, a guilty, shameful look and a forced smile, when a body contradicts itself over and over again with forced expressions or nervous outbursts followed by tears and the like - all these show that the child is going through conflicting emotions and is in need of help.

The tools for this are: 1. physical support: because his body is in conflict, he needs the warmth and comfort of physical reassurance in order to regain self-confidence. 2. Information: if the child is aware that it is natural to feel conflicting emotions, he will be calmed and encouraged even at the height of confusing moments. 3. Exteriorization: pay attention to non-verbal expressions. Ask the child, "What is your fist saying?" 4. Decisiveness: in order to get rid of the cause of these conflicting emotions, an active conversation is necessary to ensure that all his feelings have been aired out.


Most frightening to the child are outbursts of anger, thrashing about and unexpected attacks of hysteria. Some children don't experience outbursts of anger regularly, or otherwise. When anger is not expressed in a balanced manner, this is a sign of distress. Feelings should not be suppressed, but the child must know that there is a proper time, place and manner, so that he doesn't turn into an explosive `emotion bomb'. When a child is having a temper tantrum it's important to stay next to him, without touching him, and make sure that he doesn't harm himself. During attacks of fright or grief, you should sit close, touch him, calm and reassure him. If he loses control to the point of frightening himself, you must look into his eyes, sit or lie down next to him, and repeat his name over and over again in a gentle voice. Raise your voice when his eyes focus again to show that he is `with you'. Reacting to his tantrum with an outburst can break him and cause him to repeat his behavior the next time. Raising a hand when the child is very upset will only achieve opposite results. A hysterical child needs to feel warmth, a loving hug, a good word. Only when he calms down can you listen to him and answer logically.

To be completed next week


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