Speech is not as important to children as it is to adults. Children have a smaller vocabulary than grownups and don’t depend on words to express their feelings. If you’re a parent, you need to look at the big picture to know what’s going on with your kid.
Therapists like me, as professional listeners, can help you glean more information about your child through observation. You could call it a form of mind reading.
A few caveats are in order. I am talking here not about pathology but about nonverbal human behavior in children between the ages of five or six and eighteen.
Second, there are so many things to see when you observe a child that it is difficult to list them all. As you notice one thing, you will start seeing other things. The examples below merely hint at the feelings underlying a particular behavior.
It’s impossible to cover all bases when we are talking about an abstract child rather than a real one. If we met in my consulting room, I would rule out some possible interpretations as inconsistent with some aspects of the child standing before me.
If we met in person I might also notice features of your child’s behavior that aren’t listed below. The examples I provide here are simplistic and basic—much less rich and nuanced than your flesh-and-blood child.
Finally, although I mention each characteristic in isolation here, you will be trying to see how all of your child’s features contribute to the overall impression. As you observe, you will be training your eye to see more. The more carefully you watch, the more you will see.
Appearance and posture. Does he look his age, or does he appear older or younger? A younger child may feel at a disadvantage in groups of peers. A thirteen-year-old boy who appears nine or ten may feel inadequate in school, where puberty may be more advanced in the girls and other boys in his class.
Boys naturally want to be tall relative to peers. A girl who looks older than her age may find herself treated by adults as if she were in fact older. The adults’ disproportionate expectations can become a source of stress.
Does the kid stand erect or round shouldered? Round shoulders can reflect sadness, a defeatist attitude, or anger. Physically speaking, they close the body in upon itself, especially when the child is sitting down.
People who slump usually feel better when they stand tall, stretch their arms wide, and open their chests. Sitting promotes depression and anxiety. Exercise stretches the body and improves mood. If you put your own body in various positions, you will notice the differences.
Body language. Does he sit rigidly at attention, or does he mirror the gestures of the person with whom he is interacting? Does she cross her legs or hold them tightly together, her arms crossed over her chest as if to protect her torso?
Ideally the child sits in a relaxed position, either upright or, if they are seated on a couch, lying back against the cushions. Children who sit leaning forward, with their arms folded over their chests and legs crossed or held tightly together, may be trying to protect themselves because they feel vulnerable or fearful.
How fluid are your child’s movements? Are certain gestures characteristic?
Try imitating habitual physical responses if you’re not sure what they mean. How do they make you feel? You may be able to learn a lot about your child in this way. Do it in private, where your child cannot watch you and feel ridiculed.
Dress and grooming. How a child dresses will give you information about how he sees himself, but it may be harder to decode because—let’s face it—we grownups belong to a different generation with a different culture. Black outfits may indicate not suicidal thoughts but membership in a peer group of Goths. Poor grooming (dirty, oily hair, dirty, unkempt clothing, or refusal to bathe) is generally a sign of distress, however.
Eye contact. Does your boy look at the person speaking, sit with eyes downcast, scan the room as if taking stock of its contents, or stare in some one direction as if preoccupied?
In conversation, does he make and hold eye contact? Or does he seem not to want to engage in conversation, turning his face or body away, trying not to look at you directly? Eye contact may vary, depending on the person with whom the child is dealing.
Angry or unhappy children have few resources at their disposal. They lack money or power or influence. They depend on adults for these things. Consequently when they want to protest or resist they are likely to do so by refusing to cooperate, by becoming uncommunicative, by doing things you will interpret as disrespect, or (in extreme cases) by engaging in some form of destruction or an illegal act, such as stealing. Eye contact can offer clues to your child’s mindset.
Facial expressions. Does he maintain a poker face, with perhaps a slight smile, or do various emotions cross his features, one after another? What feelings do you see? Anger, hostility, fear, impatience, or contentment? Something else?
If your child does not readily express all emotions, possibly he or she thinks at least some of them should be concealed. Children who hide their feelings are often afraid of being exposed and vulnerable to criticism, scorn, or ridicule.
I remember the foster child who came home one day in tears. His foster mother said, “Go to your room until you can pull yourself together!” What message was she sending?
Voice. A loud and abrasive voice communicates anger and defiance. A soft, persistently inaudible voice may do so as well or may reflect lack of confidence. Good articulation and vocabulary and a normal speaking tone suggest that the child feels comfortable communicating and expects to be understood.
Eating habits. Is your daughter fat or thin or in between? When children are overweight, the reason may be poor diet (such as junk food). Binge eating and constant nibbling can be maladaptive ways of self-soothing to counteract anxiety.
Layers of fat can feel like protection from the outside world: they offer a barrier against some forms of intimate interaction, at least in the mind of the overweight person.
When children starve themselves, on the other hand, or binge and purge, as a parent you might ask yourself how easy it is for them to express negative feelings. Do they tell you when they are sad, ashamed, angry, or embarrassed? Could they be struggling to feel in control of their daily lives?
Energy level. Very high energy children don’t necessarily have ADHD. Real illnesses are present everywhere and not just in some settings.
When kids spend hours on a video game or other toy and seem unable to focus at school, maybe the problem is the agenda at school. Ask yourself whether your child focuses readily on objects of interest and stays absorbed in them.
Many of the symptoms associated with ADHD are found in children who are anxious or fearful. On the other hand, children who appear listless and consistently uninterested in their surroundings may be depressed.
Social interaction. Children who cuddle into an adult on my couch, as small children often do, are generally showing that they trust this person. Physical distance between the child and the parent can signal conflict or tension between them.
How readily does your daughter engage with you, the parent, or me, a stranger? Is she hesitant and fearful? Or does she speak readily and confidently? Does she seem aloof, distant, eager to avoid sharing information?
With a parent, this attitude can reflect anger or fear. With me, a stranger, it can indicate distrust. How children respond to strangers is a quick measure of how confortable they are in their own skin. How any two people sit when talking to each other, and the physical distance between them, speak volumes about their relationship.
How does your boy appear in the company of siblings, other relatives, and peers? Does his demeanor change, depending on the situation?
Does he look comfortable in groups or awkward, like an outsider? Children who act as if they don’t fit in may be feeling lonely and isolated. Everyone needs a sense of belonging somewhere, of being a member of some community.
Behavior at play. Is she alert and curious about her surroundings? Does she engage readily in activities? Does she become relaxed and playful with toys or games? Is she comfortable with instructions and rules of play? Is she a good sport or a poor loser? Is she competitive?
How is her tolerance for frustration? Is she patient when several attempts are needed to master a new skill or game? Does she need to win all of the time? Does she melt down when she loses? When she loses, is she eager to try again, taking a different approach? Children who always need to win are looking for validation and encouragement. they often worry that their efforts and ability are subpar.
How children approach interactive board and card games can tell you how they feel about themselves, how advanced their social skills are, and how able they are to accept and learn from their mistakes.