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Toddler Language Development: When "use your words" is bad advice

During a phone consultation with a mom in San Francisco the other day, it came to me: parents are too focused on getting their kids to talk.

Parents ask for words when there are none; when words aren’t possible or even needed. When words are too tall an order. When words are beside the point.

This particular mom wanted advice on limit setting with her willful three-year-old daughter. She couldn’t understand how a kid with such incredible language skills sometimes acted like an incomprehensible brat. The mom tried to soothe her savage little beast by asking her to ‘use her words.’

“I know she’s capable of using her words,” said the mom. “She just doesn’t want to.”

Capable? Not necessarily. A directive to “use your words” to a kid in a heightened state of emotional disequilibrium is like saying, ‘you need to calm down’ to your spouse after you’ve stepped on his or her big toe. In other words: potentially infuriating, inflaming, and shortsighted.

Language acquisition, while one of the most important cornerstones of child development, is still not fully understood. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing precociously verbal toddlers are also emotionally advanced. Though they may have vocabularies in the hundreds, their social and emotional coping skills are still rudimentary at best.

Socio-emotional skill acquisition is a separate, spiky beast. All kids have their own uneven, unpredictable trajectories. A three-year-old with the vocabulary of a six-year-old is still emotionally a three-year-old. In fact, verbal toddlers may be even emotionally YOUNGER, depending on life circumstances. A new baby in the house, a change of environment/school/home, or basic genetic predispositions can all delay emotional maturity in even the most even-tempered, well-spoken kids. So don’t be fooled.

And then there are the non-talkers, little ones taking their own sweet time with language altogether. Please don’t push these kids to talk; they’re busy honing other important skills. Kids who are making physical strides aren’t working on verbal skills at the same time and visa versa. Uber-climbers are usually not the best talkers, and precocious thespians tend to be a tad on the clumsy side. Things even out in the early school years, but get used to this fact: some kids will always be more verbal and others more physical. And one is not better than the other.

So let’s all get on the same page, parents of talkers and non-talkers alike. Let’s assume that all kids are not always logical or clear in their uses of language to express their ‘feelings’ when in a state of distress.

And so, here are some non-verbal alternatives for those times when your kid is in a particularly thorny state:

1. Hugs and Chilling out.

A loving squeeze is always great if your kid is in a state to receive one. If so, while embracing, suggest some deep breathing, and do it along with them. Once the sniffles have subsided, don’t go right to, “so can you tell daddy/mommy what’s bothering you?” Instead, suggest some chilling out. If you can, create a spot in your home specifically for quiet time, preferably in a common area, where your kid has visual access to you. Beanbag chairs or piles of pillows are great; soft, squishy places where kids can look at a books, drink from water bottles, play with toys, and generally re-group. If you can, mirror this behavior grown-up style. Put your feet up, thumb through a silly tabloid, have a beer/tea/vodka/kombucha. There will be conscious and unconscious reflecting going on during this time, for everyone. This will come in handy later, when your little one is well rested and centered, when talking makes more sense.

2. Shake, rattle and roll.

For some kids, movement really helps. If they’re not big on talking, ask them to ‘dance out their feelings’ and watch intently. Watching may be enough, but some kids like it when parents provide a narrative. If your kid is jumping up and shaking his or her fists, say something like, “Wow, you do an amazing angry dance. You are the maddest, fiercest dancer I have ever seen!” Feel free to join in. Attempt to shift the movement towards something calmer, from shakes and fists to sways and gently flapping arms. If you’re not a great mover, you will at least provide a valuable distraction, getting your kid to laugh at how silly you look.

3. Picasso-it

Some kids find self-expression with non-toxic, washable paints/pens/markers and big, empty surfaces they can splash, scratch and slash away at. Other visually creative types are better in three dimensions, and can say much with Play doh, clay, or other gooey, knead-able stuff. Verbal feedback from mom or dad might help, as in, ” I see a bit of mad here in this red section. Very interesting. I wonder what that’s about.” And once again, if possible join in and create your own non-masterpiece.

Regardless of which approach you use, wait until later, when your kid is well fed and well rested, to bring up any earlier troubling moment. But even then, don’t force the issue. It could be that by working it out non-verbally your kid has gotten past the incident. In some situations, it will be important to talk with your kid about how to make things go better in the future, when there is no choice but for them to use their words. But every now and then, especially when they’re young, it’s okay to let the words go, maybe even say, “Okay sweetie. This time, don’t use your words.”

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