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How to help our children better communicate and express what they are feeling

I was shocked one day when, in the middle of a difficult decision I was making, my son said 'Why are you angry, Mum?', and thought I was upset with him.

It is not till later teenage years that a young person starts to be able to interpret facial expressions accurately: before that, a young person may only recognise basic facial expressions, such as happy, sad or angry.

A young child will often interpret more complex expressions, like puzzlement, tiredness, or surprise as anger.

Adults generally chat their way through incidents and anxieties, decision-making and joys, with friends and family.

We make sense of things by talking about them, and getting social feedback from others.

Children only start to share their feelings verbally after about the age of seven years. Before that, children’s language and social interaction skills are limited.

Young people continue to learn about verbal and non-verbal interactions, and how to understand them, until at least 15 years old.

Why we can't ask our kids 'why'!

A good friend of mine commented yesterday that there is no point in asking a young child ‘Why? about something he does, because he has not yet developed critical thinking skills.

That is so true!

Yet our three year olds drive us crazy with their ‘Why?’ questions! It is because they want clear practical replies to the ‘why?’ questions. They do not want philosophical or emotional reasons, just the simple facts!

From birth, children are practicing the communicating skills they need later on, and the ‘Why?’s are the way they learn about the give and take in conversations as well as learning valuable information from Mums and Dads who, even if they are geophysicists, need to give simple answers to such questions as ‘Why can’t we see the air, mummy?’. (What would you say to that one?! - sometimes, Mum saying 'I don't know why! That's such an interesting question, I am going to find out with you!' may be the very best way to reply)

"Listening" to our children's behaviour

Before about 7 years old, children do express what they feel about what is going on around them – very effectively, - but mainly through their behaviour.

We adults need to watch our children and ‘hear’ what they are saying through what they do: withdrawn-ness, or temper, silence, or obstinacy, bullying, hyperactivity, or timidity – these and other behaviours are a ‘language’ that it is important for us to listen to.

Often – not always – these reflect big reactions to things a child is trying to make sense of in his or her environment.

Here are three ideas to use to help your young child express what he or she is feeling:

1. Be aware and sensitive to the signs your child shows about what is going on in their lives.

Unwillingness to do what he/she normally does, or to meet with someone he/she used to play with, may not just be a matter of moving on to something more mature or better for him. When you ask him ‘Why?’, look at the specific thing or incident that may have triggered it, rather than talking about whether he doesn’t like that child or what made him upset or angry.

2. Give your child opportunities to use play

This could be painting, drawing, making models, lego, role play with clothes, and participate, playing out things that may be an expression of how he is feeling. Find ways to take destructive, negative play into creativeness, and help your child use the play activity to reach a positive, happy conclusion. This will help your child not to just accept ‘bad’ experiences, but to feel some control about how things can be made better.

3. Make a habit of giving special time to each child.

If you are very strapped for time, even 5 minutes is a good start, or as long as you and he or she can, when there are no interruptions, and others are not listening. It is your child’s time – not yours, so it is over to them what goes on in that time. Your full involvement and appreciation is vital.

Watch your child develop and gain confidence in communicating what he really wants and needs to say!

I would love to hear your ideas too - do you have a special way of reading or listening to your child's behaviour?

With good wishes,

Margi Kulsoom

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