Using eye contact is a fundamental part of communication at all ages. Let’s consider benefits, barriers and tips for good eye contact.
Notice what it’s like when you don’t get eye contact, or when someone talks to you from another room so that you can’t see their face. It can feel uncomfortable and unnatural and it can lead to communication breakdowns. A breakdown is when the exchange of thoughts or feelings (the goal of communication) fails.
Think about this scenario: You’re madly trying to get out the door to get your child to school. Your 6 year old is reading a book on the couch, when you yell from the kitchen, “Please put your shoes on!” 5 minutes later, you approach him. He is still reading his book and is not wearing his shoes. This leads to an argument in which you say “Why can’t you listen to me?” We may blame our child for being a “selective listener”, when in fact, he didn’t really choose not to listen; he probably didn’t even realise he was being spoken to!
Grandma got down to his level to share a lovely moment with B2 at Nightcliff Beach.
Benefits of using eye contact with our kids
- It’s natural for most of us.
- Getting eye contact gets attention, getting attention promotes listening, listening helps understanding of the message and understanding allows learning.
- Eye contact helps us to understand each other as the person we’re communicating with can access extra information about our message from our facial expression.
- Eye contact allows us to develop joint attention with our baby or child. This early skill is crucial for developing more complex social-communication skills later on.
- When they look at our face, they see how we make speech sounds by observing the position of our lips and tongue when we talk.
- When they look at our face, children with hearing issues may benefit from lip-reading and hearing better because they are closer in proximity.
- Making eye contact helps us convey to our children that we’re listening to them and are interested in what they have to say. It will also put them in good stead for developing relationships with others, as they learn to listen to and care for their friends.
- We share an experience, which is important for our children’s social-emotional development.
- We may avoid communication breakdowns and the arguments which follow.
Barriers to Using Eye Contact
#1: Problem or personality
We may have to stop what we’re doing and move physically, in order to make eye contact with our children. It can be an interruption to what we’re doing. Your child may also need to stop what they’re doing in order to look at you. This can be a challenge for very active little people!
Very young babies usually need to be in a calm but alert mental state to make eye contact, but newborns are often tired or hungry!
There are some culturally-specific “rules” around eye-contact. For example, in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to look a person of higher status in the eye. On the other hand, in Western cultures, someone who avoids eye contact with another person may be judged as being “shifty-eyed”. Yet, someone who sustains eye contact continuously may be regarded as overbearing and lead the other person to feel uncomfortable. When judging whether someone has a problem with eye contact, it is important to consider the cultural norms.
Signs of Problems with Eye Contact
The following are signs that your child is having difficulty with eye contact:
#1: doesn’t look at you when you speak (this could also signal a hearing problem)
#2: makes eye contact only very fleetingly and not very often at all.
Problems with eye contact can be a sign of a disability such as Autism. If you have concerns about your child’s ability to make eye contact, you should speak to a GP, baby health nurse or Speech Pathologist.
How to help your child with eye contact
Getting eye contact requires getting down to your baby’s level, physically, or lifting them up to your level. Remember that up until about 3 months of age, babies can see objects best when they are placed within about 30cm of their eyes (this is about the distance between their eyes and yours, when you are holding them).
TODDLERS & OLDER:
You can play on the floor, perhaps even lying down so that your head is level with theirs. If it is difficult to get your child’s eye contact, you could try raising up a toy that they are interested in, and placing it next to your eyes so that they look towards your eyes. You may direct them by saying their name, followed by “Look at me”, and pointing to your eyes if necessary. Some children need more explicit teaching of eye contact. You may need to talk to them about why and how to use eye contact. However, for those who pick things up more naturally, simply modelling the use of eye contact will help them learn.
When she comes to your with her latest story, stop what you’re doing, get down to her level physically, look into her eyes, and behold the magic which comes when your little one shares her heart and mind with you.
This advice is not intended to replace the recommendations of a Speech Pathologist for an individual with a communication impairment. If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, please contact a Speech Pathologist. Early detection and early intervention works.