Deciphering Your Child’s Body Language

body language

Your child starts communicating with you even before they are born, moving inside of you and kicking to let you know he or she is there. Even from the moment they are born, crying indicates that he or she has come into the world. So, it is not surprising that communication and learning to understand your child is a fundamental key aspect of your relationship!

Especially from 0-2 years old, children can have a difficult time verbally communicating what they want from you or others. From a simple pout, to a jovial giggle, to even hitting, children use their bodies as a primitive way of communicating with everyone they meet. By taking the time to learn what their body language really means, your effective responses to their actions can make them feel happy, safe, and heard.

Emily Corbin, a school counselor and doctoral student in family therapy interviewed by sheknows said, “Children can’t verbalize like we can; observing their body language lets you see their needs.” She also added that “The prefrontal cortex, which helps us regulate emotion, isn’t fully developed until the mid-20’s, which can make kids appear irrational, emotional, and impulsive during childhood and adolescence.”
This is why it is important to remember that your child’s brain, just like their body, is not physically fully developed in many ways. This can help put frustrating situations into perspective, and allow you to react in a calmer manner in the heat of the moment. After all, not only do you observe and respond to your child’s actions, but they do the same with you too! 

Even though you know your child better than anyone, it is still possible to misunderstand what it is they are trying to communicate to you. For example, if they receive a birthday gift and don’t react to it or push it aside, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like the gift. Instead, it could mean that they are apprehensive when it comes to engaging with it because it is new to them. This is when it becomes useful to engage in their nonverbal cues, in which you could acknowledge their hesitation, and show them how the toy works and how much fun they can have playing with it too. As a guide for understanding observed behaviors, the following are some behaviors compiled by Delmar Learning that you may see, and what they mean:


  • Rapid Eye Movement: Searching for something, scanning for a specific object
  • Eye Avoidance: Fear, respect, needs a break from the current activity, distraction or lack of interest
  • Closed Eyes: Tired, blocking out stimulation to think more clearly
  • Face Scanning: Taking in visual information, attempt at recognition, searching for something
  • Gazing: Signal of attachment, observing to learn something new, desire for connection, observing reactions from others to ensure they are in a safe environment
  • Lowering Eyes: Submission, fear, embarrassment, shame, disengaging, thinking about an emotion
  • Pupil Dilation: Arousement, excitement, interest
  • Looking Up: Visualizing, problem solving, thinking of a sound to make
  • Looking the Around Room at Each Person: Anxiety, gathering information to make a calculated decision, lacking confidence, slow to warm up in social situations

facial expressions looks at own reflection

Facial Expressions

  • Looks at Own Reflection and Makes a Silly Face: Embarrassed at own recognition
  • Looking at Own Reflection and Makes a Weak Smile: Unsure of who the image represents
  • Weak Smile: Tentative, fearful of social connection
  • Pale Face: Too cold, heat stroke (check signs and symptoms), sick, tired, nauseous
  • Blank Face: Aware of bodily functions, listening intently, tuning out
  • Drooling: Teething, sore mouth, loss of bodily control, palsy (check for other signs and symptoms)

Head Movements

  • Head Tilted Sideways: Interest
  • Tilted Down: Shy, doesn’t want to play, fearful
  • Tilted Up: Confident, open to invitation
  • Hiding Face: Anxiety, attempt to withdraw from situation, unwillingness to respond
  • Moving From Side to Side: Recreating a feeling, enjoyment, excitement
  • Twisted Away: Dislike, rejecting food, sound is too overwhelming, overstimulated, tuning out
  • Head Forward: Interested, concentrating
  • Head-Banging: Unable to communicate, emotionally upset, deprived of attention/stimulation, deprived of physical contact

gestures thumb sucking


  • Hands Flapping: Excitement
  • Clenched Fist: Anxiety, anger, response to stress
  • Pointing at Own Body Part: Showing where they are hurt
  • Banging Arms on an Object: Anger, frustration, seeing what will happen
  • Hand Wave: Goodbye, wanting you to leave
  • Grabbing: Wanting something, feeling jealousy
  • Swiping Arms Across Table or Floor: Seeking destruction, anger
  • Holding Items to Mouth: Self-soothing and comfort, feeling temperature or texture
  • Thumb or Finger Sucking: Comfort, nervousness, imitation
  • Toe Sucking: Indicating they have discovered their toes
  • Dropping Items Over an Edge: Playfulness, testing to see if objects are permanent, checking to see others’ reactions
  • Chewing Wrist: Nervousness, insecurity
  • Tickling Someone: Imitating adult, taking over role of control, testing another’s reaction
  • Pulling Own Hair: Frustration, profound happiness
  • Pulling Someone Else’s Hair: Anger, checking to see response
  • Eating Refusal: Not hungry, upset, unwell/nauseous, being stubborn

Body Movements

  • Arm Flapping: Overwhelmed, unsure about a new situation, anxiety, upset, about to have a temper tantrum, thrill at achievement, happiness, response to cold weather, response to open space
  • Restlessness: Uncomfortable about a situation and haven’t decided whether they will speak up, need to feel at ease
  • Lack of Responsiveness: Unwell, poisoned (check signs and symptoms), tuning out
  • Wriggling: Wants to get away, rejecting control
  • Rhythmic Movements: Self-soothing
  • Rocking: Upset, self-soothing, feeling rejected
  • Holding Genitals: Comfort, anxiety
  • Symmetrical Movement: Have not yet developed moving one part of the body independently

Bodily Contact

  • Tugging on You: Need your attention to communicate whether they are tired, excited, frustrated, unwell, need help, etc.
  • Burying Face in Your Legs and Clinging: Separation anxiety, refusal to do something, nervous, scared
  • Pats Child: Showing empathy, knows they are hurt
  • Hits Other Child or Adult: Anger, loss of control, doesn’t know they hurt too
  • Strokes Skin: Need for contact

Posture & Stance

  • Arched Back: Uncomfortable with someone’s presence, wants someone to go away, doesn’t like being touched
  • Hunched Shoulders: Disappointment, wants people to keep away
  • Leaning Forward: Interested, engaged, paying attention


  • Moving in Close: Attempting to persuade
  • Medium Distance (Across Room): Needs both closeness and independence
  • Moving Close Then Moving Away: Testing independence and abilities
  • Sits Alone (Often in Corner): Needs physical protection, wants emotional support, disconnection from others
  • Refusal to Join In: Feels incompetent, isn’t interested, doesn’t like sharing
  • Looks at Group Instead of Joining: Feels lonely, prefers to observe
  • Plays with Partial Back to Group: Wants to join in, feels left out, checking what others are doing

It is important that parents observe and respond to their child’s body language, just as it is important that you listen to someone and respond when they talk to you. Paying attention to non-verbal cues will help you to better understand your child and help to keep them safe, happy, and feeling loved!

Check out these other articles used in our research for more information on understanding your child’s body language:


Deciphering your Child's Body Language