Isn’t it a shock when you see yourself on video? Often we say, “I didn’t know I looked or sounded like that.” We aren’t aware of our tone, our posture, our facial expressions, or even how we communicate our emotions.
Part of self-awareness is recognizing that what we think or feel on the inside doesn’t always translate accurately through our voice, emotions, and actions. Or do they?
Remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? I can hear him now singing his simple greeting song:
“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood. It’s a beautiful day for a neighbor. Could you be mine? Would you be mine?”
Hearing that song in my head calms me. He was always calm. Always smiling. Always pleasant.
How I wish I was more like that.
I remember when my son was about four years old, and I noticed him exploring my face when we talked or played, even when I corrected him. He still does this a lot. I think he is gauging to see how safe I am.
He looks to see how emotionally regulated I am. He notices my voice tone, volume, and cadence. He takes nonverbal cues from my facial expressions and body posture. How well I regulate my emotional state, tone of voice, and non-verbal cues can help or hinder my son’s ability to regulate himself.
Here is a reminder of some Parenting with Connection principles you may have learned:
Regulate your Emotional State – When your child is out of control, match his or her expressions without matching his emotions. This allows you to communicate to him or her that you understand what he or she is feeling while staying regulated yourself and helping them do the same.
If I don’t do this well, my son angrily yells at me, “You’re just making fun of me!” He especially does this if he is hurt or upset. I admit that my first reaction is one of two things. I either want to tell him to “Suck it up. You will be okay.” or I have to muffle a laugh, because sometimes he is really cute or funny.
Neither reaction matches his emotion, and he usually melts down further. However, if I do a good job of regulating my emotional state and matching his expressions, he feels comforted and understood.
Practice Total Voice Control (TVC) – Let’s just say I am terrible at this. I try to use a firm voice, and it comes out as harsh and stern. My son usually responds with fear. He either runs from me or he tries to fight me by hitting, kicking, or throwing something at me. His eyes will dilate and I can see the look of fear.
“Specifically, your voice, and how you use it, matters a great deal when responding to fear-driven responses from your child as well as dealing with misbehavior.” —Dr. Purvis
- T stands for Tone – Learn the difference between a firm tone and a harsh tone. I think again about Mister Rogers. I should listen to him over and over until I get that calm yet firm sound in my voice along with a less scary face.
- V stand for Volume – Notice the loudness or bigness of your voice when correcting. I spent years learning how to project my voice for singing. I use to joke with friends about having the nickname “Larry Loud.” I have silenced a roaring room of a few hundred without the use of a microphone more than once. That’s not exactly the volume I need to use when talking to my son though.
- C stands for Cadence – Slowing the cadence grabs attention and avoids a harsh tone and a loud volume. I have noticed that both Danielle and I tend to talk faster when trying to correct or direct our son. It’s like I think I can accomplish this better if I can barrage him with more words or keep talking so he doesn’t have any airspace for a sassy or defiant comeback.
My son almost always regulates when I slow down my cadence, use a lower volume, and use an appropriate tone. I can visually see him able to respond to me with cognitive thinking rather than with a fear-based response.
Focus on Nonverbal Communication – Consider not only the words you use or don’t use but also your nonverbal signals. Is your posture relaxed and inviting or rigid and threatening?
It really would help if we always had a mirror in front of us especially when we interact with our kids. I know I wouldn’t like the reflection of my nonverbal communication.
I only know one way to do this well. I rarely am aware of my nonverbal cues in the moment of interaction with my son, especially if I react with big emotion. What helps me is to put a mirror up to my heart. My emotion, my tone, my nonverbal communications tend to follow the state of my heart.
Kenneth A. Camp
I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family. Read more from Kenneth at KennethACamp.com.