Speaking Without Words

A friend was surprised at my expression of concern that she hadn’t sounded like herself in a recent conversation. She explained that a new medication was giving her difficulty and she was amazed to hear that somehow this had come through in her communication.

Along these lines, a young man told me that he has difficulty reading people’s reactions when they are not expressed in words. In other words, he has trouble with non-verbal communication. This is a problem for him socially because he often misses the cues needed to make appropriate responses himself. He sometimes doesn’t get it that he has annoyed someone with something he did or said.

The role of non-verbal or behavioral communication is of particular relevance to parents given the limitations in young children’s ability to use language and the degree to which they express themselves through behavior. It is not hard to understand why it is sometimes difficult for parents to understand their children’s behavior. Observing children at different stages of development it is clear that the meaning of behavior at one stage may be quite different than that of the same behavior at a different stage. Beyond that, each child within himself may be at different stages with regard to different areas of development.

Often what is confusing is what we think of as social behavior. As adults our expectations can go awry if they don’t match where children are in their development, but also if we don’t recognize the variations in the abilities of our own child. For example, children clearly are interested in other children from very early on. However, the way they express that interest varies considerably as their behavior is affected by other aspects of their development. A child who is still limited in language ability may protest by pushing or hitting if another child takes his toy. In the same way, a child with good language may be struggling with controlling his impulses and unable to use words to express what he feels or wants.

Parents often worry when a child seems to do something, such as hitting someone for “no reason”. The “reason” may be clear to the child if not to the adult, such as something the other child did earlier of which the adult is not aware. Or it may be an expression of a child’s wish to gain the attention of another without yet having the skill necessary to make a better kind of approach. Or it may even tell us that a child is tired and out of sorts, and is expressing it by striking out at the nearest target.

When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication. Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.

One thing I have found helpful is to ask myself, “If this child could put what he is feeling into words in this situation, what would he be telling me?” Answering that can often make intelligible, behavior that seems meaningless or simply “bad.” It then becomes possible to respond to your child instead of to your own feelings. It opens communication between you and your child and the ability to help your child learn how to communicate in a different way in the future.

Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents. Most parents are good at it and are already doing it. The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises – a meaningful way of promoting successful communication.