Parents have an exceptional ability to sense how their child is feeling long before they give explicit signals (i.e. tears, screams, tantrums, sadness), but often, we miss vital clues from their body language and behavior that could prevent a temper outburst or further distress.
Children pick up cues from the environment that can cause them to feel frustrated, uncertain, confused, and they can have a hard time processing new information. Unlike adults, children lack emotional self-awareness which means they are unable to talk about or process their feelings as we can. In many cases, emotional outbursts could be avoided by the parent/caregiver picking up on those vital clues.
Humans have an instinctive sense to read their child’s body language. Try it for yourself... observe your child exploring their small world, this is a great way to witness the natural emotional response to the environment – think about the energy they bring, how they carry themselves, the facial expressions and of course, the voices they make – an infant’s communication, expressed vocally and through body language, is authentic, honest and instinctive.
Consider a one-year-old, who successfully dressed herself for the first time, or finally fitted the cube block into its appropriate slot… the elation in their eyes, a gasp of excitement, shoulders pinned back, and looking at the adults in the room to receive their standing ovation. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, if that infant is trying to force the 'cube block' into the 'crescent-shaped hole', they quickly become frustrated, followed by anger and then tears. These situations are important learning stages for the infant, especially if the parent is by her side. Research shows that the quality of parental input, both verbal and non-verbal is a key predictor of the child’s cognitive development.
Children, just like the rest of us, pick up signs from the environment that affect feelings of frustration, uncertainty, confusion, and they can have a hard time processing new information. They lack emotional self-awareness and are unable to talk about, or process feelings they are having, and often, intemperate outbursts could be avoided by the caregiver picking up on those non-verbal cues. Here are some ways you can achieve this:
#1 - Observe your child with more intention.
It doesn't take a great deal more effort, it requires you to actively switch from the automaticity of the mind to a more focused observation by looking for cues and clues from their body language that can give you an indication that something is up. For instance, consider a toddler that is unusually quiet around the dinner table, this may be an indication that they are processing something internally, perhaps something happened at nursery that is troubling them. Simply recognizing this and asking, “Is everything OK?" can bring their awareness to their feelings and help them process it.
You are looking for behavior and language that is out of the ordinary: less eye contact, lowered posture, hunching, shoulders rolled, head down, enervation, and perhaps clinginess. These behaviors are an indication that the child isn’t feeling safe or perhaps they are processing some dejection or confusion, and their means of signaling to their caregiver is by presenting themselves a bit smaller, or more closed-off than usual.
#2 - Eye contact
Infants, and in particular, babies, yearn for communication with adults, but also it’s fundamental to their neurological development. Eye contact is extremely important for your infant to learn about facial expressions and the meaning behind them. They pick-up these non-verbal languages long before they can speak, and they do this by mirroring your actions.
But it works both ways, in social-cognitive development fields, it's known as "mutual gaze".
Eye contact is also central for the parent/caregiver, because it allows them to grasp the attention of the child and explore their eye’s and face for any hidden signals that could be an indication of what’s happening in their inner world, in other words, just by observing our children’s faces, we have an innate ability to understand how they are feeling. For example, if your baby is avoiding your eye contact, it’s not necessarily a sign of rejection or disinterest, more likely they have had enough informational input and need time to process it.
If they are seeking your eye contact from the other side of the room, this is an indication that something is bothering them, maybe they are up to mischief, or perhaps they are pushing their boundaries to explore farther. This is crucial for developing confidence in the wider world, so by simply meeting their gaze, you will fill the infant with self-assurance. However, if they fail to meet your eye contact, they will feel uneasy, and most likely move themselves back to your position. Eventually, they will stop seeking your gaze, and this could harm your attachment relationship. The long-term effects in adolescence through to adulthood vary from lower confidence, self-esteem, poor interpersonal skills, poor emotional regulation, and less resilience.
#3 - Put down your phone
Unfortunately, when it comes to getting a parent's attention, infants now have smartphones to contend with, which are produced by big tech companies who employ behavioral experts to develop strategies to keep your attention on your news feed and not on your child. As long as your head is in your phone, your child is missing out on critical brain development.
Further to this, an increasing body of evidence suggests our phones interfere with our memory, sleep, self-esteem, attention, creativity, problem-solving, and chronically raise our cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Therefore, even after you put your phone down to attend to your child, chances are, you are giving off signals of stress, frustration, confusion, and your infant will pick up on these.
Bottom line: Parents, you cannot pick up on these cues and clues if your head is in your phone. Nowadays, so much of our social and work life rely on technology, and that fine, as long as you can find the balance. Many of us need to get emails sent, work finished, holiday booked, online shopping ordered, and so on. Technology has made these tasks quicker and easier, so don't ignore duties that are going to cause you to stress... this is counterproductive. Instead, find the balance which could mean managing your phone time more effectively such as setting aside a specific time, especially when your kids are about.
A last word from Upmanhsip
If you are concerned about your child's eye contact, then contact a medical professional for advice.