Language: two-year olds don’t have enough of it and can become terribly frustrated when they can’t communicate their needs. I’m sure you have heard parents tell their little ones, “Use your words”. Perhaps you have said it yourself. It makes sense to coach our children to communicate clearly; they’ll get their needs met more easily and we won’t have to play guessing games that make us want to pull our hair out!
Using words is more important than simply communicating needs. Using words organises our feelings. Words make sense of our world. As children’s vocabulary grows they become more able to manage their emotions. This is directly because of language. To quote a long ago lecturer, “Language is the digestive juice of the mind.” If we don’t express an experience in words (even in our own thoughts) then we don’t process the experience, we don’t make meaning of it or learn from it. The importance of this is clear in the context of my work providing “Talk Therapy”. Perhaps it is less clear how this applies to parenting.
Three approaches that fundamentally underpin my work are that of Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training); Adele Faber and Eileen Mazlish (How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk); and that of Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell (www.circleofsecurity.net). These approaches teach parents to connect with their children by using language. Gordon calls this skill “active listening”. The more recent work of Dan Siegel (The Whole Brain Child) shares the findings of neuropsychology (e.g., using brain imaging) to explain how using words to express what a child has experienced- using words that describe both the facts and the feelings- assists a child to integrate the functions of their brain and regulate their emotions.
Little Sammi came into my rooms with her mother and father. As she entered, she tripped and knocked her knee on the coffee table. “Ouch!” I exclaimed. Sammi’s face showed shock and pain. “She’s fine.” said dad. “That didn’t hurt, did it?” chided mum smilingly. Sammi’s eyes darted up to her father and she clung to her mother. She looked unsure and ready to cry. I tried again: “That table corner is sharp and hard. Sammi didn’t see it and it hurt. Maybe a cuddle will help Sammi feel better and then she can choose which toys she wants to play with. I have lots of toys.” Mum and dad were quick learners and it didn’t take them long to learn that Sammi needed to have her experience articulated (expressed in words) and her feeling (pain) acknowledged so that she could understand what had happened, process it, and then move on to something happier (the toys). When Sammi’s experience was denied (with the best of intentions), she struggled to reconcile her parents’ message (you’re not hurt) with her inner experience (that hurt!), she got stuck in the conflict between these two messages. The words being used did not match her experience. She was alone in trying to process the hurt.
Like many of us, Sammi’s parents had learned that children need to learn to brush off their hurt and be tough to survive in a tough world. Indeed it is logical to think that paying attention to Sammi’s little accident might provide reinforcement for attention seeking behaviours. Without getting into the psychology of why this logic does not hold true and is not helpful, I can assure you that this is not the case. Try acknowledging things from your child’s point of view for a while and see for yourself. Read Dan Siegel’s work (No Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child).
Between that first session and the second, Sammi’s parents took many opportunities to use active listening and to recount Sammi’s experiences from Sammi’s point of view. They found that instead of becoming a “sook” when her pain was validated, she actually recovered faster. They saw first-hand that the commentary on their daughter’s experience seemed to settle her and increase her resilience. Sammi bounced back more easily when her parents stopped denying her feelings, her reality.
Sammi’s parents had learned to use their words!