Great Kids, Great Parents

Infant/Child Development and the Importance of Children's Feelings

Toddlers, Language, and The Power of Translation

Translating feelings into language―and language back into feellings!

 There are many dictionary definitions of the word translation: to change from one state or form to another; to turn into another language; to transfer from one language into another.  The synonyms are interesting too.  They include: transfer; transform; paraphrase; explain; convert.  Most or all of these relate to the process we are considering: the back and forth translation between feelings and words.

Before an infant can talk, translation comes into play as a parent tries to decipher the meanings-or feelings- behind an infant's use of facial expressions and vocalizations.  As we laid out in our first book, What Babies Say Before They Can Talk, these feelings are interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell.  These comprise the preverbal vocabulary an infant can use to communicate and express feelings.  Infants can understand much more than we used to think, well before they can speak.  By putting words to the infant's various expressions of feelings, you enhance the process of self-soothing, tension-regulation, impulse control, and self-reflection.  Parents actually help the baby begin to understand what is going on inside herself.  

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After a child begins to talk, the function of translation expands. As toddlers begin to use words, these words are often quite raw and primitive.  The translation process with toddlers involves putting the child's words back into feelings.  The toddler's words "no" or "hate" or "gimme, gimme" get redefined or translated into the feelings: "distress" or "anger" or "excited." 

 

            Toddler's Words                                Toddler's Feelings

            gimme, gimme . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .interest-to-excitement

            no . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .distress-to-anguish

            hate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .anger-to-rage

            So, to summarize the process of translation:

                        With an infant: put words to her feelings.

                        With a toddler: figure out and name the feelings behind her words.

 

In thinking about the onset of language, we tend to mark its arrival when the baby says his first word or phrase.  But long before a child speaks, she is listening to - and quickly understanding - language and words.  So from the first day a baby enters your home you have an opportunity in how you use words and how you speak to and around the child.  Words carry emotions, and a parent's exchange of language with an infant shapes that child's developing feelings and personality.  In fact, language actually arrives in two stages: Through hearing and understanding and then through speech.  More on this later!

 

 

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist and adult and child/adolescent psychoanalyst. He is author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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