Fostering Communication With Children

It always surprises me when people think that babies and young toddlers cannot communicate.  And it is something that I come across often.  I remember one specific instance, when our almost 7 year old was about 15 months old.  We were on a road trip and we’d had to make several stops right together at one point.  I was relating the events to a friend when I said, “And Sofi said she had pooped,” My friend interrupted to blurt out, “She did not!  She can’t talk!”  I just stood there flabbergasted.  Of course she couldn’t talk, but that didn’t mean that she hadn’t told me she had pooped!

Some of the great parenting myths are that our babies are manipulating and trying to control us, that they don’t feel things, and that they are fairly passive creatures until we fill them up with our will, rules and knowledge.  All of these myths contribute to the thought that babies can’t communicate with us.  But the truth is that from birth, our babies communicate with us.  They just don’t do it through speech.

He may not be able to say, I’m a cat, but
we all know that is what he means!

Young children don’t speak, but they do signal.  Parents who are watchful, responsive and empathetic with their babies and children learn these cues and what each one means.  As an example, breastfeeding moms usually learn pretty quickly that a newborn baby who is wiggling around is looking for a breast.  This is an early hunger cue.  The baby sucking on a fist is also a cue.  To a nursing mom, these things are typically learned quickly, and taken for granted as the baby communicating a need.

But the signals don’t end there.  Different babies form different signals for different needs.  The more we, the parents, pay attention and respond to these signals, the more signals the baby forms, and the more communication we can have with them.  Babies will form cues to let you know when they are tired, overstimulated, need a diaper, or even that they need to relieve themselves (this is the basis of elimination communication), and many other things.  And the older they get, the more they can signal.

The thing is that if your baby doesn’t feel heard, he or she will stop attempting to communicate as much.  He or she will only communicate what is necessary, like hunger or pain.  And when our kids stop communicating with us, except when necessary, we lose out on a lot of our parenting experience.

So, how can we foster this communication with our young children?

*From birth, if possible, spend a lot of time with your baby.  Baby wearing is a great way to do this.

*When your child is crying, or using his or her body to express displeasure, really try to resist the urge to think that the baby is trying to make you do anything.  Instead, really try to be with the child in that moment, and think about what it is that the child is upset about.  Try to understand what your child is communicating.  You don’t have to address it, change it, give in to it, or do anything about it.  But try to understand it.  Being able to understand where your child is coming from is a huge step to gaining their trust, encouraging them to communicate AND to responding gently.

*When your child is calm, alert and happy, stay present and try to figure out what he or she is doing, thinking, or observing.  Watch for all of the little cues that he or she gives about his or her feelings, likes, dislikes, and thoughts.

*When your child is pointing, signing, grunting, or babbling at something, try to figure out what it is.  Don’t just say, “I don’t know what you want!” and go back to what you were doing.  Really try to get in that little mind and figure it out.

*When your child is pointing, signing, grunting, or babbling about something, really resist the urge to tell the child to “Use your words.”  Accept your child’s communication where it is.  Then say the words for him or her instead.  And, a little speech development tip that I learned long ago, use the exact word by itself first.  Then you can use it in a sentence if you wish.  As an example, if your child is pointing at a ball, and carrying on, you can say, “Ball?  You want the BALL?  Let me get you the BALL.”

*When you understand what your child wants, validate their communication in some way.  If it is a newborn signaling something, take care of the need.  The baby will learn to use this same signal for the same need every time.  If it is an infant or a toddler, verbally assure the child that you understand what he or she is signaling, even if you can’t fill the need.  When they understand that you understand, they will keep trying to communicate.

What other ways do you foster communication with non-verbal children?

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