Interpreting your child's nonverbal cues

  • Children express many of their feelings with nonverbal cues.

    Children express many of their feelings with nonverbal cues. Stock Photo

  • Children express many of their feelings with nonverbal cues.

    Children express many of their feelings with nonverbal cues. Stock Photo

By Sherri Lau
Amita Health
Updated 8/2/2020 9:22 AM

Sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic has forced parents to juggle work and home in new and unexpected ways. With so much going on, even the most attentive parent can sometimes miss what their children are trying to tell them, especially when they may be at a loss for words.

Children express many of their feelings with nonverbal cues. Here are some common nonverbal cues, what they mean and what you can do to support your child through this difficult time.


'I'm hungry' nonverbal cues

• Irritability

• Lower tolerance for stressors

• Outbursts of anger or tantrums in younger children

• Lower impulse control

• Inability to focus or concentrate

• Sleepiness

• Poor coordination, mistakes

What to do

Try to feed your children at the same time every day. Maintaining a consistent eating schedule for everyone is just as important during the pandemic as it is when they're at school. COVID-19 fears and quarantining has upended our routines and these changes and unknowns are especially difficult for children. That's why they crave consistency. No matter what happens, they'll at least know what to expect while they're at home, including at what times they will eat.

'I'm bored' nonverbal cues

• Increased silliness, such as jokes, mockery of others and laughter at nothing

• Irritability, including curt responses to questions, low tolerance for frustration

• Anxiety

• Increased fidgeting

• Increased lethargy

• Nail biting, finger tapping and leg bouncing

• Psychosomatic symptoms, such as butterflies in stomach or headaches

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What to do

In an age of helicopter parenting and instant access to almost everything, our children can be occupied though nearly every waking minute. As a result, many are not used to being alone with themselves and this unfamiliar experience can provoke fear or anxiety.

It's usually best for parents to focus on normalizing and validating that boredom. Share your own experiences of being bored as a child and talk about how it forced you to get creative and learn about yourself. Most importantly, emphasize that they don't have to do anything to alleviate their boredom. Whatever you do, resist the urge to help them fill the downtime. Have faith in your child's imagination.

'I'm overstimulated' nonverbal cues

• Increased, unprovoked aggression toward others

• Silly or impulsive behaviors

• Less patience for stressors, people, technology or social situations

• Outbursts of anger

• Mood swings

What to do

Reduce the stimulus by turning off the TV, confiscating devices or lowering lights. Engage them in a calming, mindfulness activity, such as asking them how they'd describe the room they're in to someone who's never seen it. As you learn which activities wind up your child, you'll be able to limit those activities going forward.


'I'm scared' nonverbal cues

• Easily startled

• Frustration or anger

• Anxious behaviors, such as fidgeting, rocking, thumb sucking or nail biting

• Poor concentration

What to do

This can be a tricky line to walk as a parent. You must help them understand fear is a normal human emotion without accidentally encouraging the specific fear itself. Avoidance of the fear will only increase it by confirming that it's something to be feared. Engaging in behaviors or reactions validating the fear, such as checking for monsters under the bed, also will increase rather than dispel the fear. The best way to help your child manage fear is to slowly increase their exposure to the trigger, demonstrating their ability to increasingly tolerate it.

Talk about some earlier fears they've successfully overcome. This helps reinforce they have the power to successfully manage fear with self-soothing behaviors. Just as important, model the behavior be telling them about fears you've had that you've overcome.

'Something is bothering me' nonverbal cues

• Atypical behaviors

• Regressive behaviors, such as wetting the bed

What to do

You know your child best. If you suspect something is bothering him or her, it's best to talk to your child in a nonjudgmental manner. Let them know you care and are worried about them. If they seem reluctant, let them know you're there for them when they're ready to talk. If the behavior continues or worsens, be more direct, remaining nonjudgmental. It might also be worthwhile to seek professional guidance from a licensed therapist.

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Amita Health. Sherri Lau is a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Amita Health Proviso Children's Advocacy Center.

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