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Can't My Child Just Use Their Words?!

You know that your 4 year old or 8 year old or 15 year old can be incredibly articulate when they want to be.

So, what the actual f* is going on when they start acting out - hitting or yelling - or heading into a meltdown and they can’t even tell you what’s happening! It can be so frustrating!

Here’s the thing. Behavior is communication. It’s their first language. When they’re infants, we learn to read their behavior cues without needing any words. Then, as soon as they start to speak, we’re delighted and think, “now they can use their words to tell us what they need.” 

But behavior is still their first language and it’s a long road through childhood to become skilled at 

  • recognizing and naming their feelings, 

  • regulating their nervous system 

  • and using words to express those feelings. 

(Surprisingly, they can still resort to their first language of behavior even into their teen years!) 

Resilient emotional expression is like a staircase. Using words is at the top. Behaviors like hitting, throwing, spitting are at the bottom of the staircase. In between the bottom and the top is a lot of attitude - like when your eight year old is uses 15-year-old words for three-year-old feelings.

Sometimes attitude seems the same as behavior! When you’re working hard on improving your child’s behavior, it’s very important to recognize that attitude is a step up from behavior and reflects improvement.

The staircase of resilient emotional expression is not a steady climb. Sometimes they’re stuck at a certain point of development. Sometimes they go down and then up again and even when they can use their words, there are times when their stress or the overwhelm become too much, and they regress back down the staircase to attitude or behavior. 

Our job is to guide them up the staircase using the parenting skills of listening, validation, self-regulation, boundaries and repair. At the same time, we need to recognize that the goal is not to always be at the top. It’s about building the capacity to go down and come back up again. That’s resilience.

(For more about helping your child use their words, Click the image below.)

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