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Effectively Communicating with Children: Body Language and Tone of Voice

Updated on January 16, 2012

Helping Kids Listen

Parents often have a difficult time getting their children to listen to their requests and comply. ‘How can I make my kids listen?’ they might ask. Part of the problem may be due to how we as parents communicate with children. Parents can benefit from being aware of our tone of voice and body language and the impact this has on the behavior patterns of our children. An overly friendly or high pitched tone of voice and passive body language can result in our kids not responding to the expectations of parents. They fail to take us seriously. An overly aggressive stance and tone of voice can have our children feeling intimidated and disoriented. They may have difficulty responding well in this circumstance.

Children need direction and leadership to learn how to manage themselves in a variety of settings. Whether in the home or outside of it, children need to know when it is important to comply with the expectations of parents. Parents can become overly frustrated by children who don’t respond to them. While it is important for kids to know parents will follow through on consequences (something I have written about in several other hubs) it is also important for them to understand the intention of our communication. How we communicate expectations to our children is important. When we are communicating with children properly, they will understand the message we want to convey as opposed to the unwanted message we are unintentionally or unconsciously conveying.

Noticing our tone of voice and body language

Having a positive attitude is great but it can be also confusing to kids when we are setting limits or being directive. It’s OK to use a calm, warm, assertive tone of voice when giving directions but we need to avoid pleading. Up-talking by raising the pitch of our voice at the end of a statement will make it sound more like a question. A firm even tone of voice along with relaxed but confident body language lets kids know we are confident in our leadership. They are more likely therefore to pay attention to what we say. Kids listen when they believe we have something important to say. If parents do want to use an appreciative or admiring tone, it is best to save it for after the child has put in a good effort or completed a desired task.

Conversely, aggressive body language and a harsh tone of voice may get our child’s attention but it also tends to cause children to feel defensive or afraid. Studies have shown that in situations where cortisol levels increase (when kids feel threatened), children tend to get disoriented and confused. Further, kids who hear a negative tone in their parent’s voice often tend to avoid interactions with that parent as much as possible. Is that what we want as parents? Probably not so we may need to pay attention and become more aware when we are communicating with children.

One way to do help adjust our tone of voice and body language is for a parent to arrange to videotape some of their interactions with their children. This type of feedback can be invaluable. It might seem a little elaborate but often we really don’t see ourselves objectively until we get feedback from another source. Many parents are surprised at how pleading or how aggressive they actually sound when speaking to their children. When communicating with children our body language is something that is often completely out of our awareness. Seeing ourselves on video is almost always more effective than having others describing our actions to us.

Once we have decided what we need to change in our body language and tone of voice, we will need to practice it. Change is not always easy because it requires repetition for it to become habit. It also requires that we are aware of the body language and tone of voice we don’t want to have if we revert to doing it again. This means we need catch ourselves doing it. Further, by practicing a new behavior in a mirror for example, we can pay attention to the details of the new behavior patterns. We are better able to notice how our body feels and looks as well as how we sound. Once we have practiced our new tone of voice and body language we will need to practice with our kids. Don’t expect miracles, Rome wasn’t built in a day and much of your children’s behaviour patterns took years to develop.

Changing behavior patterns

The first thing we need to do when communicating with children is to make sure they can actually see us and hear us. This means removing distractions from the equation. For example, it is OK to place ourselves between our child and the TV and lower the television’s volume so that they can hear us. If we have to, we might even need to turn the television off (ideally though we should be able to ask our children to lower the volume themselves and have them respond favorably.) Communicating with children is always difficult when they have their attention on something else. This means making sure our children can see and hear us. Also, if we help our kids understand the value of respecting others by giving them their full attention they will better be able to take directions. This will help them at school and in their communication with others in many different situations.

If we are confident in our body language and tone of voice our children will be more likely to hear what we are saying. There is a time for playing and having fun with our children but doing that while giving expectations is confusing for them. On the other hand, if we come across as aggressive and angry, our children will be more likely to attribute that to us having a bad disposition rather than being a product of their own behavior patterns. We can also have more impact in our communication with our kids by making some type of physical contact with them. A reassuring hand on the shoulder is often more than enough.

Good role models communicate effectively

We need to also remember that we are role models when we are communicating with children. The way they communicate to others will likely be similar to the way they see their parents communicate. Children will model their behavior on behavior they see in their parents. Effectively communicating with children is one of the more important parenting skills we can learn. It may take a little extra effort but most parents don’t want to beg or bully their children in order to get them to listen to their expectations. Kids listen when the message is clear and forthright. If we want to see change in our children it will almost always mean changing ourselves in some way. Just like our kids we are all works in progress. The more willing we are to change ourselves, the more able we will be to influence change in our children.


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    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 17 months ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      This is great! I think it's especially important that you point out that harsh tones may get attention but not be truly effective: "Conversely, aggressive body language and a harsh tone of voice may get our child’s attention but it also tends to cause children to feel defensive or afraid. Studies have shown that in situations where cortisol levels increase (when kids feel threatened), children tend to get disoriented and confused." This is so important - they may physically be unable to process and store information when they are stressed! Thanks for your contribution to this important topic.

    • profile image

      ijlk, 4 years ago