Watch your tone of voice when speaking to children

Most adults respond more strongly to visual stimuli rather than auditory or tactile input. In fact, we rely so much on what we see that we might ignore other sources of information coming from our senses of hearing and touch altogether.  This means that we are alert to the body language and facial expressions of those around us.

Not so with children. Researchers at Durham University in the UK found that children up to the age of 11 years focus more on auditory stimuli when trying to grasp emotional aspects of their experience.  During an experiment, children tended to ignore visual images of people depicting various emotions (joy, sadness, anger and fear) and rather drew conclusions from the emotional voice tones used, even if these contradicted the visual image.

This study suggests that when an adult is communicating with a child and trying to hide anger or frustration with a smile, it might not matter.  In other words, putting on a positive front when one is sad, for example, is unlikely to convince a child unless your voice sounds happy too.

According to the researchers, these new findings could also have implications for teaching and education. In fact, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children are currently studying from home, where they might be more exposed to auditory distractions. The observations reported in the study hint to the possibility that emotion-related stimuli in a child’s home (e.g., programs about COVID-19 on TV, family members arguing, etc.) could influence how a child engages with or perceives his/her schoolwork.

“We have several studies lined up to see how far we can push the effect we observed,”  Dr. Ross, one of the researchers, commented. “For example, we will be adding emotional faces into the mix and running another version of the experiment using emotional music instead of vocalizations. It could be the case that any emotional stimuli could be sufficient to influence a child’s visual perception, it might not even need to be human.”


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