Appropriate eye contact plays an important role in nonverbal communication. In the United States, good eye contact demonstrates self-confidence, helps communicate emotion and lets someone know you are interested and paying attention to what he says. By teaching toddlers how to make better eye contact, you can give them the communication skills necessary for building healthy relationships.
Reasons for Poor Eye Contact
Toddlers may avoid eye contact for many different reasons. Identifying which reason is responsible for a child's poor eye contact may help you figure out how best to improve it. Toddlers who feel angry or fearful may exhibit their emotional turmoil by avoiding eye contact. Poor eye contact is also a symptom of certain conditions, such as an attachment disorder, sensory processing disorder or autism. In some cases, lack of eye contact doesn't even indicate a problem. Certain cultures, such as those in Japan and Latin America, teach children to show respect by not making eye contact.
Improving Eye Contact
Teach your toddler how to improve his eye contact by modeling good eye contact yourself. When you talk to him or when he talks to you, make sure you look him directly in the eyes. If you stare at the television or computer while talking to him, he may think it isn't necessary to look people in the eye when he communicates. Get down at his eye level to make it easier for him to make eye contact. If he avoids looking people in the eye because he feels nervous, pressuring him to improve his eye contact can worsen the problem by making him feel self-conscious. Instead, work on building up his self-esteem, describe his behavior in positive terms -- he is "reserved" rather than "shy" -- and give him the space he needs to feel comfortable enough to make good eye contact.
Toddlers with autism or a sensory processing disorder may avoid eye contact, in part, because they feel overwhelmed with sensory stimuli. Finding ways to lessen their sensory overload makes it easier for them to make good eye contact. Talk to an autistic toddler while she is swinging. As long as she is having fun, the motion of swinging may help her to look you in the eyes. Since your toddler may lack the language skills to tell you when she feels overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, change her environment if you notice signs that stimuli from things such as fluorescent lights or the sound of pencils scratching are making her uncomfortable.
In some cases, therapeutic help may be needed to improve your toddler's eye contact. Occupational therapists use play activities to teach toddlers ways to automatically and appropriately respond to the sensory stimuli that overwhelms them. If a toddler has an attachment disorder, he may avoid eye contact as a way to keep people at a distance. Therapy that helps him rebuild attachments to his caregivers can help him feel more comfortable with the emotional connection generated by looking people in the eye.