Teaching Your Kids How to Express Themselves

Communication occurs on two levels: verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication consists of our words. Non-verbal communication consists of facial expression, tone of voice, gestures and actions. Both verbal and non-verbal messages are important in successful communication, however, some experts believe that non-verbal communication is actually the more important of the two.

Children start out as non-verbal communicators; parents interpret their needs as they are expressed through crying, fidgeting, moving their bodies and their hands. Although this method works fairly well, it can be frustrating for both parent and child. Often, it is impossible to decipher the baby’s message! Parents are naturally eager to teach their children how to become better communicators. Fortunately, babies are very interested in learning to speak and many will acquire some language as early as one year of age. Others will first talk only after their second birthday. Whenever language appears on the scene, parents can help their kids learn to use it effectively by encouraging verbal communication skills.

Here are three ways that parents can help their toddlers communicate better:

Spend Time Translating Non-Verbal Communication into Words
Instead of responding immediately to a non-verbal request, invest time teaching your child the verbal alternative of what they are trying to say. For example, if they point to a glass of juice to communicate that they’d like a sip, you can say “You want juice? Okay. Can you say ‘I want juice?” Or if they are whining or moaning because they want to go home, encourage them to say “I want to go home.” Whenever a child relies on body language instead of using his words, simply remind him to use his words. Give him the actual words to say (this makes it easier for him at first). Reinforce his efforts by responding to his words immediately. You can also offer praise. For instance, if the child says “I want juice,” the parent can say “Good talking! Here is some delicious juice for you!”

Mirror Back their Feelings
An area where reading a child’s non-verbal communication is helpful is in the identification of feelings. The ability to know what one is feeling is an important skill for children to learn, and is considered as the foundation of emotional intelligence. Kids can’t always tell what they are feeling so it’s up to parents to teach them about feelings and how to identify them.

One way parents can help their children identify their feelings is by a processes called mirroring or reflecting. In this process, parents simply present back to the child the feelings that they read in their actions or facial expressions. For example, a child who comes home and slams the door is probably feeling angry. Parents can say “You seem angry” as acknowledgment of the feeling observed (only AFTER naming the feeling and addressing it, would the parent begin to teach the child that slamming a door is not an acceptable way of expressing that feeling). Or a child who falls into tears after saying that her playmate just moved away can be told “I can see how sad you are that she moved away.” While the intervention seems minor, it can teach children on how to be more self-aware when it comes to their emotions. The naming of feelings is called “emotional coaching.” It is a skill that has very powerful, positive effects on child development, especially in helping to raise a child’s emotional intelligence (E.Q.).

Encourage Deliberate Non-Verbal Communication
Sometimes words are really not enough. There are many messages, both positive and negative, that can be communicated better through non-verbal methods. The key is in communicating non-verbally effectively and intentionally, instead of using non-verbal communication as a substitute for verbal messages.

One way to encourage appropriate non-verbal communication is to model it. When you verbally tell a child, “I love you so much!” add a physical gesture of love such as a big hug or a kiss. Encourage your child to let a sibling experience his or her love in a similar fashion (“tell the baby how much you like her and give her a big kiss on her head to show her”).  Teach kids to back up their words with actions: “Let’s make Daddy a birthday card and we’ll go to buy him a gift. We’ll say Happy Birthday and give him his card and his gift after supper tomorrow night.” Teach children to show interest by looking at a speaker. Teach them how to express anger in safe and acceptable ways (i.e. “When you are mad at your brother you can use your words to tell him and you can speak in a firm voice. You cannot go and break his puzzle.”) Sometimes we have to teach older children how NOT to show their feelings: for instance, it may be important for a 12 year-old girl to learn NOT to cry whenever she feels insecure or sad. Teach her to use her words (“I’m afraid you’ll be mad at me”) and how to control her facial expression and body. This will take practice and may benefit from professional intervention. However, by teaching the child to use age-appropriate communication strategies, you are actually helping her to be more socially appropriate. This will help her with her social skills and lead to more success and self-esteem.

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