KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Communicating Parental Love through Physical Interaction

Posted by Marilee Comfort on Thu, May 01, 2014 @ 05:45 PM

Parents interact with children physically in many ways. Just because a parent isn't physically touching a child does not mean that the parent isn't physically interacting with their child. Physical interaction is an important factor in assessing parenting, and includes both touching and non-touching. Non-touching physical interaction is sometimes referred to as nonverbal interaction or body language.  The quality of physical interaction is an important factor in child-parent attachment.

Why Physical Interaction is Important

assessing parent physical interactonPaying attention to a parent's nonverbal behavior can greatly influence an assessment of parent-child interaction. While a parent may be using positive, supportive language, if the nonverbal message does not match, it can have a puzzling or negative impact. According to the Mehrabian Equation, how communication is received is based 7 percent on words, 38 percent on tone, and 55 percent on body language, especially when communicating feelings. If a parent’s nonverbal physical interaction does not match their words, it could be confusing or harmful to the child. Such a mismatch could diminish the child's perception of support, create a feeling of mistrust, cause low self-esteem, or lack of social skills. 

From birth, babies begin learning communication through nonverbal behaviors. They recognize faces, expressions, and body language before they learn words.  Nonverbal communication has been defined as any communication without words. It can include facial expressions, eye contact, posture, spatial distance between the parent and child; even how a person is dressed. While verbal output can be stopped, nonverbal cues and actions cannot. Thus, within families, even when a parent is not speaking to a child, the parent is still sending a distinct message through nonverbal behavior.

Assessing Physical Interaction to Support the Parent-Child Bond 

The Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) has one item assessing physical interaction.  However, Emory University psychologists Steve Norwicki and Marshall Duke took particular interest in facial expressions, and developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) to assess children’s abilities to identify facial expressions. Most children first learn to interpret and express with their faces as babies within their family environments, and become more skilled as they gain wider social experiences.  Research on understanding facial expressions has shown that abilities of expressing and reading them are correlated, although women are typically more skilled than men and personality affects these skills. 

Learning to assess physical interaction can be challenging.  In our KIPS training we find that learning to assess touch is relatively straightforward.  However, learners often forget to assess the non-touch physical interaction that includes facial expressions.  To help with scoring the complete spectrum of physical interaction, the KIPS scoring form includes the reminder, “Physical involvement includes facial expressions, body language, touch, proximity and movement.”

All aspects of physical interaction offer a wealth of valuable information about the relationship and trust between parent and child.  Observing the nonverbal physical interaction while doing a parenting assessment, practitioners can ask themselves some of the following questions:

  • Does the parent make eye contact with the child?
  • Does he lower himself to the child's level?
  • Is her stance open and leaning towards the child?
  • Does he respect the child’s preferences for physical contact and space?
  • Does she face the child when speaking?
  • Does the parent’s facial expression match his words?  

Parents who show nonverbal behavior that is congruent with their words and matches the preferences and needs of the child are more likely to develop strong parent-child relationships.  A parent who does not use body language, facial expressions and movement appropriately in concert with the child’s needs may need help in learning how to identify and express these nonverbal cues themselves and recognize them in their child as well.

When a child doesn’t develop the ability to interpret nonverbal communication, it may be a sign that he hasn’t learned this skill from his parents.  This may lead to difficulty in forming social relationships when the child enters school and beyond. It is important to prevent or remedy this issue by using a valid parenting assessment tool, such as KIPS, so that these communication skills can be developed through parent education, coaching or therapy. 


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Tags: parent assessment, attachment, KIPS Items, physical interaction, nonverbal interaction