″The evidence is clear and compelling—physical punishment of children and youth plays no useful role in their upbringing and poses only risks to their development″
Joan Durant, PhD, and Ron Ensom, MSW,
Coalition on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth, 2004.
The Power of Translation
In the last several posts, we have been focusing on the transition from infancy to toddlerhood. In particular, we have highlighted the onset of language - and the importance of translating the child's early words back to the feelings these words express.
So what do we mean by this idea we are calling "translation"?
It's helpful to hear what the dictionary says. There are many definitions: 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 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 described in our 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.
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
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.
With a Toddler, Try Translating The Words Back into Feelings
With toddlers, the key to good communication and a solid parent-child relationship involves this process of translating—translating the child's words back into the basic feelings. The parent can then respond to the feelings and not just the words. The child feels understood; and the parent understands her child. This is the power of translation. You return to the feelings of the child. Why is this important? Because it is feelings which are the true motivators of your child's actions and words. Just as it is important to translate the infant's facial expressions and vocalization into the feelings, so it is crucial to translate the young child's early words into feelings!
This allows the parent to realize that the child doesn't really want you to go away; the child doesn't hate you; the child is simply expressing anger and frustration. At this point-when words are vehicles for raw emotions-translating allows parents to defuse the growing conflict and their own distress. This technique has amazing powers to transform the parent child relationship and to help the child learn to identify his or her own feelings and articulate them in a more direct and less confrontational manner.
A family comes home from a nice vacation, during which the father has spent lots of time with his three-year old son; they had fun being with each other. After the first day back, father comes home from work and goes to hug his son hello. His son reacts negatively, pulling away, saying "no kiss, I no like you... go away!"
What's happening here? Let's go back to the basics. What feelings underlie the words "no kiss," "no like," "go away"? Distress and anger are the feelings. So why is the little boy distressed? Because he missed his Dad! He felt left, abandoned by his Dad after they had spent all those nice vacation days together. With this understanding of the feelings behind the words, father and son can begin to sort out the problem. Father can take a breath and try to say something like: "I think you're distressed and angry at me... "hate" does not give me much information... maybe you can say 'I am angry at you'...I think you're angry at me and wanted me to go away because I hurt your feelings, I disappointed you, I left you this morning after all those days of fun together! And I loved our time together! I'm sorry I had to leave you and go to work this morning."
Children can understand such seemingly sophisticated ideas and feelings; in fact they long for them. Validation and understanding are vital if a child is to feel that he matters, that his emotions have a place in the world and that he is loved for who he is.
When you put a word to a child's feelings and take the time to explore what is going on behind the terse expression of feeling, you are essentially translating from toddler speak to adult speech. This is most effectively done by labeling the feelings. In fact, you will be most effective if you use the actual names of the nine feelings: interest, fear, enjoyment, and so on. Or use variations: "I think that scared you" or "that little car really excited you." Or get playful with synonyms: "You sure are interested and excited... and elated, exuberant, ecstatic!" Children learn much faster than we think they do. They can readily learn these words. And when a child learns words for feelings, they are doing what we term "symbolically encoding" their internal feeling states. This allows for increased thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and decreased impulsivity. For instance, a child who begins to label her tantrums as feelings of "distress" and then "anger" becomes increasingly capable of recognizing the sequences involved in the tantrums, what triggered them, whether she was feeling "very distressed" and "very angry" or less so.
"Label the feelings" or "put words to the feelings" become the mantras. A child who is able to label her feeling as "interested" or "excited" or "angry" or "scared" has a huge head start on her tension-regulation capacity, that is, her capacity (conscious and unconscious) to manage her various anxieties and feelings and to calm herself down when she gets anxious or frustrated. Learning to control one's self when challenged by the outside world is an ability that has life long benefits. For instance, teens who learn this early are better able to think before they act, and they can stand up for themselves in the face of peer pressure much more effectively. That is where the environment and inner world of the child come together.
I was seeing a child who was having a lot of trouble adjusting to preschool. When she came home from school, she would be angry and difficult to communicate with. She often threw tantrums and called her mother names. She swore at her, which upset her mother enormously. The only thing that seemed to clam the little girl down was if her mother would read to her.
However, the mom would get so mad at the way her child was behaving that she would refuse to read to her until she calmed down. The very tool at the mother's disposal for helping her child was used to try to bludgeon her into "good" behavior! The results were dismal.
What to do?! By showing the mom that the child's acting out was a cry for quiet time together, not an assault on the mother or her parenting abilities, the mom was able to gain control of her own emotions and find a way to enjoy reading to her child for about 10 minutes, a little soothing ritual, after school every day. Mother began to realize that the reading was a soothing mechanism for her daughter. She began to use the reading appropriately as a tension-regulator. This in turn helped the little girl to strengthen her own self-soothing capacities.
By reading the book, the mother was able to use translation. The child's difficult behavior after school was understood as an expression of distress. Mother was able to talk with her daughter about what was upsetting her at school. The trick was to not get caught up in the child's expression of a strong negative emotion, but to translate, understand, and help the child with whatever triggered the feelings.
Beyond the Toddler Years: Later Childhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood
This process of translating has benefits throughout life. It is of tremendous importance to put words to feelings and actions. Many people suggest adolescents are hard to understand. They are not. If one goes back to the basics, it all makes sense. What are the actions, the words? How can we translate from the actions and words back to the feelings? Are they distressed and angry? Are they curious and excited? Once we translate back to the feelings, and then accurately label the feelings, everything falls nicely into place. It starts with translating—translating words back into feelings.
To summarize, language represents a huge developmental leap. It is a stunning trip, from the child's expressing feelings and motives through vocalizations and facial expressions to a point where he or she can use words as symbols that shape, direct and help form his or her personality and emotions. There are few things more exciting to watch and participate in.