Why it matters that kids aren't learning non-verbal skills

# Watch this first - really!

Before reading any further, please watch this brief video. And pay attention because there’s going to be a quiz immediately afterwards (ok, there’s no quiz, but the video is important for today’s topic)…

Click here (opens new window) if the video above doesn't play properly

# Non-verbal communication is critical to so much

Miscommunications are a normal part of life and, as the video demonstrated, can happen in many ways and for a variety of reasons. One of the most important parts of communication, and a common causes of misunderstandings is non-verbal communication. In the video, had they been able to see each other they may have avoided the entire incident.

According to Wikipedia (opens new window), “Nonverbal communication (NVC) is the transmission of messages or signals through a nonverbal platform such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and the distance between two individuals. It includes the use of visual cues such as body language (kinesics), distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics).1 (opens new window) It can also include the use of time (chronemics) and eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate (oculesics).”

Non-verbal communication is incredibly important for effective and accurate communication, social interaction, and human development. Just how important? Some researches (opens new window) believe non-verbal communication accounts for more than 90% of all human communication. Some have disputed this number, but a commonly accepted rule of thumb is that non-verbal communication accounts for at least half of what we convey to each other.

Right from our entrance into the world, we humans develop our social skills from face-to-face communication. Very early in life we learn to interpret non-verbal cues (it's one of the reasons babies stare at their parent's face), form relationships, learn to modify our behavior in different social situations, learn how to start and maintain conversations, how to effectively resolve conflicts, know when we’re making other happy or causing pain, and so much more.

In fact, researchers have indicated that children who understand emotional cues in social settings may actually develop superior social skills and more positive relationships. In other words, non-verbal skills are critical for our own development and for having healthy relationships throughout our lives.

# What happens if we don’t develop these skills completely or properly?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is playing out in front of our eyes, right now. Today, kids spend so much time looking at the screens on their devices, rather than in person or in face-to-face situations, that it's possible they're not developing their non-verbal skills.

As mentioned at the start of this article, miscommunications are normal and possibly unavoidable. However, entire generations of children failing to develop effective non-verbal skills is a serious problem. As much as I love technology, it’s apparent that the ways and amount kids are using technology are negatively impacting their non-verbal skills.

Specialists at the American Speech Language Hearing Association (opens new window) have indicated that… “their primary concern is that excessive use of devices is replacing conversation and human interaction....Social communication skills are also in jeopardy due to tech overuse. These skills are developed and honed through daily interaction and include knowing how to take turns during a conversation, using facial expressions, changing the way you speak based on the listener — such as how you talk to a baby versus an adult — and making appropriate eye contact. Such personal interactions are limited as children passively view a screen.”

# How can we help our kids develop their non-verbal communication skills?

Since technology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, we need to find ways to adapt. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help our children develop their non-verbal skills, which will help them throughout their entire lives. And there’s evidence that improvements can happen very quickly and without a lot of effort.

In one study, researchers had preteens spend five days in a nature camp. Some kids had access to screens and some did not. All the kids took tests to see how effectively they identified different non-verbal, emotional cues before and after camp. The kids without access to screens during camp showed significantly improved ability to recognize non-verbal cues than the kids that had access to screens. The researchers concluded: “Time away from screen media, with increased social interaction, may improve comprehension of nonverbal emotional cues.”

We’ve discussed how much screen time and social media time is too much in a previous article (opens new window), so we won't go into that again. The bottom line is, limiting access to screens, in particular limiting social media access, is beneficial in a variety of ways, including developing non-verbal skills. Yes, it's more complex and challenging to do this in a COVID world, but that doesn't change the importance and benefits.

In addition to limiting social media and screen access, the researchers pointed out the benefits of increased social interaction. The more in-person and/or face-to-face interaction the greater the likelihood for kids to develop their non-verbal skills. This is certainly more challenging in the current quarantining, social distancing, mask-wearing world, but it’s still possible. Playing outdoors, going for walks, sitting around a campfire….there are many ways to give our kids opportunities to have social interactions.

Another suggestion is turn non-verbal communication skills development into a game. You and your kids can make different facial expressions (representing happy, safe, frustrated, and so on) and see who can properly identify the most emotions. Try saying different phrases with different tone, such as “please stop” in a happy tone, angry tone, and so on. You can do the same thing with different types of eye contact, posture, and more. You’re limited only by your imagination.

Let’s help our children develop effective non-verbal skills so they can have more successful social skills and relationships throughout their lives.

# Do you or your child need support right now?

If you or your child are in a crisis situation please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

If you're not in crisis but would like to connect with an online counselor (through our partnership with Betterhelp), please use one of these links: