Are you raising kids who can't read body language?
You know that technology is changing our lives. But did you know that it is also changing our brains? According to UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center, this is true for everyone, but it is most relevant for your children — those “digital natives” who were born into a world of laptops and cell phones, text messaging and tweeting and who have been accused of spending too much time using technology and too little time engaging in direct social contact.
Researchers are discovering that daily exposure to computers, smart phones, video games, Internet search engines, etc. stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways while weakening old ones.
There is real value in the new brain circuitry your children are creating -- including a heightened ability to react more quickly to visual stimuli and to shift through large amounts of information rapidly to decide what’s important and what isn’t.
But there is also a downside. Neural circuits that control the more traditional communication methods are being neglected and the pathways for one-on-one personal communication are beginning to atrophy. One result is that your children are losing their ability to read body language.
Here’s why you should care . . .
While your child’s brain is developing circuitry for online social networking, it is also producing shortened attention spans and diminished social skills, including nonverbal communication, which directly impacts emotional aptitudes like empathy. In fact, a study by the University of Michigan found that the empathy levels of college students have been declining over the past 30 years – with an especially steep drop in the past ten years.
Here are four things a parent can do to build (or reinforce) children’s social skills, empathy, and body language abilities:
1. Have dinner as a family
With children’s soccer practice, ballet rehearsals, and piano lessons – not to mention parental work obligations, having dinner together has almost become a relic of a bygone era. But it is in the interactions and conversations around the dinner table that children learn to socialize and empathize with family members. In fact, research show that family dinners not only strengthen the brain’s neural circuitry for human contact (the insula and frontal lobe) but they also help ease the stress from daily life, protecting the medial temporal regions that control emotion and memory.
2. Monitor – and limit – media exposure
The influx of callous reality TV shows and the astronomical growth of social networking technologies that allow people to tune others out when they don’t feel like engaging, are thought to have contributed to the dramatically lower levels of empathy in the University of Michigan study. There is also a growing body of research to substantiate that exposure to violent media (especially violent video games) numbs people to the pain of others.
3. Teach your children the body language “basics”
Let your children know that their body language communicates all their emotions. Explain that when they have had a great day, you can “read” happiness it in their smiling faces, pulled back shoulders, and bouncy step. Likewise when they are sad, angry or frustrated their bodies give you clues to their feelings.
Help your children understand how they send positive and negative messages through their body language. Explain that other people can feel rejected or discounted by an eye roll or a “whatever” shoulder shrug – and can be made to feel included or special by a something as simple as a smile.
And show them how they’ll benefit, by getting along better with their friends, family and teachers, if they pay more attention to the nonverbal signals (and the emotions behind them) that are constantly being displayed by others.
4. Model empathetic body language
Whenever possible, kneel or sit to be at their height and face your children directly when you are speaking with or listening to them. Give them your full attention – make eye contact and don’t multi-task or fidget.
To encourage a child to continue speaking, nod your head using clusters of three nods at regular intervals. Head tilting is another signal that you are interested, curious and involved. Both signals can be very positive cues when you want your child to keep talking.
To let your children know that you understand their point of view (especially effective with teen-agers), use “mirroring” and subtly mimic their posture, gestures, and facial expressions. To be perceived as non-judgmental, open your body by uncrossing your arms and legs and showing the palms of your hands when you gesture.
To show encouragement and interest, lean slightly toward your child, but of course avoid crowding his or her space. Each of us has an invisible, but very real "bubble" that defines the distance we keep between others and us. Recognize your child's bubble and respect its boundaries.
And take heart.
All human beings are hard-wired for empathy and to understand body language, and your children have the same innate abilities, even if they may be missing some of the lessons that they could have picked up had they received more practice in handling face-to-face encounters. Scientists have shown that we can intentionally alter brain wiring and reinvigorate some of those dwindling neural pathways; even while newly evolved technology circuits bring brains to extraordinary levels of potential. As you work with your children, you are giving them the best of both brains!
About the author:
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an executive coach, change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She’s an expert contributor for The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, a leadership blogger on Forbes.com, a business body language columnist for “the Market” magazine, and the author of “THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can help – or Hurt – How You Lead.”