Little ones often use silent signals to communicate. Here are ways to decode their body language. 

shy child
Credit: 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.

Instead of saying hello to Aunt Sara, your kid yanks her shirt over her head.

What you think it means: I don't want to see her!

What it probably means: I don't want her to see me!

Your child's reaction is probably more about her than her aunt. First, try to peek at her face. If she's smiling, she could just be playing. "But if she looks unhappy, she might be hiding because she's feeling a sudden wave of wariness," says Dr. Sossin. Toddlers are dealing with lots of new emotions, and they don't always know how to express them. Your next move, don't make a big deal out of it. You may be tempted to say, "Oh, she's just shy," to make her aunt feel better, but avoid labeling your kid's behavior in front of her. Try to describe what's happening: "Looks like you're a bit unsure. Let's give you a little time, and you can join us when you want." Then, keep it upbeat with Aunt Sara to show that she's fun to be around.

When you come into the room, your 2 1/2-year-old won't look you in the eye.

What you think it means: I did something bad (and I don't want you to know about it).

What it probably means: I feel bad about something I did.

Your child's lack of eye contact isn't always a sign that he's trying to be sneaky. Along with shyness, he's also starting to deal with feelings of shame and remorse -- and that's good: A recent University of Iowa study showed that 2-year-olds who felt bad about acting up had fewer behavioral problems later on than those who didn't.

Your Next Move Stay calm if it seems like your kid is hiding something. Your first thought might be to search for trail of cookie crumbs or some other quasi-disaster, but he may simply be upset that he knocked over his sister's block tower. "Whatever the case, the best way to respond is to keep it positive," says Alan Greene, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. If you know what went wrong, point it out and tell him not to do it again. If you're not sure, say, "I know something's happened and it's okay -- I love you," says Dr. Greene. This way, he'll feel secure enough not to try to hide things from you.

Your once-clingy 1-year-old pushes or runs away from you.

What you think it means: Get away from me!

What it probably means: I can do it by myself!

What may seem like a diss is actually good news: "Your kid is starting to trust herself and the world around her," explains Rahil Briggs, Psy.D, a psychologist at Montefiore Children's Hospital, in New York City.

Your Next Move Try not to take it personally -- your can-do child still needs you. If she wants to examine a tree in the park, let her touch the bark or smell the leaves. Avoid stepping in unless she's doing something dangerous, such as picking up a sharp branch. Think of yourself as a gas station and your child as a car, suggests Dr. Briggs. "When she needs reassurance, she'll zoom into the safety of your arms for emotional refueling," he says.

Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

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