“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.
First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling, and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?
Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, or suddenly burst into tears, or are uncooperative with our requests, or mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.
- The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
- The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, to tell us about them.
A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, through body language, and ultimately with words.
As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:
Four year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)
Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”
Four year-old: (crying loudly.)
Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”
Four year-old: “YES!”
Seven year-old: (Sitting at table, making loud huffing sounds.)
Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”
Seven year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”
Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”
Seven year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”
Nine year-old: “I’m COLD.”
Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”
Nine year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”
Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”
Nine year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”
Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”
Nine year-old: “But I’m COLD.”
Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”