In a perfect world, you get your child and she gets you all the time. Everybody who lives in such a perfect world, raise your hand. Nope. I didn’t think so. In our imperfect world, what we say and how we say it doesn’t always match. So we have verbal and nonverbal communication. As parents, we need to actively listen to both what our children say and to how they say it.
Your five year old son is sitting in a chair, arms crossed over his chest, scowling, and he then turns his chair completely away from you. In your best parenting way, you ask, “Hey, buddy, what’s up?” His response? “Leave me alone. I don’t love you anymore.” Your shoulders slump and there’s a catch in your throat. You turn to leave the room, and then he starts crying. His verbals tell you go away, but his nonverbals tell you to stay. What to do?
When confronted with mixed signals, attend to both and accept your confusion. A self-absorbed parent might respond to his child’s words with, “You don’t talk to me that way. I am your father.” With those comments, you’ve lost opportunity to console your child, find out what happened, and have a teachable moment.
Instead, stay in the moment and acknowledge what you think is going on. “Wow. I’m really confused. You tell me to go away, but then start crying when I do. Wanna talk about it?” Sometimes, under even the best circumstances, your child will say, “no.” Don’t persist. Simply suggest, “I can give you your space, but when you do want to talk about it, I want to listen.”
Similarly, if your teen approaches you asking to talk and you respond, “Sure, Son. What’s on your mind?” Yet, your head and attention are still buried in the newspaper. Here, you are the one with the mixed messages. Your words will have more impact and be more important to your child when your head, your heart, and your voice are all on the same page.
When your verbal and nonverbal communication line up, you have more integrity with your child. When you observe and try to unravel your child’s mixed messages, you develop emotional intimacy and opportunity for a teachable moment. How you say it is just as important as what you say.