By Caitlin Bootsma
Consultant to the VIRTUS® Programs
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” is a phrase many parents and caregivers are familiar with and may have used. When asking for eye contact, we are often looking for confirmation that a child or teen hears and understands what we are telling them, but is it always the most effective way to communicate?
In one Psychology Today article, the author suggests that forcing eye contact can be perceived as “aggressive” or “unnerving,” particularly by teenage boys. In trying to cultivate an atmosphere of trust it is important to give kids the physical space they need to feel comfortable communicating.
I cannot help but draw a comparison of this to the Sacrament of Confession. For some penitents, seeing a priest face to face will help them feel connected to God and better able to seek forgiveness. However, for others, a Confessional screen gives the penitents the space they need to bring up sensitive or uncomfortable topics.
Similarly, different space dynamics will be effective for different kids. Next time you are having a challenging or sensitive conversation with a teen or child, pay attention to whether pushing eye contact is actually causing the child to withdraw, rather than engage.
If they are shying away from eye contact and disengaging from the conversation, you might consider holding a conversation in a different way. Some suggestions to consider include taking a walk side by side, talking while you are driving in the car or when playing basketball or engaging in another activity. You may find that rather than being a distraction, these activities create the space the child needs to respond more fully to you.
Ultimately, it is more important that a child is able to converse freely with you as well as have the space to process what you are saying rather than meet your eyes.