How to Decode Your Kid's Body Language

Little ones use a lot of silent signals to communicate, but we've got ways to read their body language.
shy child

Shannon Greer

Like many parents of toddlers, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of trying to figure out your kid's signals. Even though children typically know around 200 words by their second birthday, they still only use 50 or so regularly. This means you have to depend on your child's body language much of the time to figure out what she's feeling or wanting -- and when you can't, she may go into meltdown mode.

While no one expects you to be a mind reader, you can pay attention to your kid's visual cues to pick up on how to respond, says K. Mark Sossin, Ph.D., codirector of the Parent-Infant/Toddler Research Nursery at Pace University in New York City. Check out four common crossed signals -- and what you can do to better tune in to your toddler.

Your child stands with his arms folded in front of a new toy.

What you think it means: Forget it! I'm not interested!

What it probably means: I feel apprehensive!

"Hard to believe, but one little arm cross can have more than 67 interpretations," says body-language expert Patti Wood, author of Success Signals. "But for a toddler, it's most likely a sign that he's feeling uneasy." Your child might not be able to say, "I don't want this unfamiliar rocking horse near me," for example, but he can shield himself from it by folding his arms to create a protective barrier. Children this age love to explore new things, so if he seems uninterested in something, he may just be getting his courage up.

Your Next Move If he's hesitant to try the new rocking horse, move on for now. Later, you can encourage him to play with it again by using your own body language to show that you like the toy: Move it slowly with your hand, or mimic riding it by standing over it and saying, "Wow, this is so much fun!" But don't force him to get on it, which could turn his apprehension into a full-blown fear and lead to a tantrum. "When he feels safe and curious enough, he'll be willing to give it a shot," explains Wood.

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