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Before Children Talk ... They Understand a Lot!

Children understand more than you think.

"... some senses of the self do exist long prior to self-awareness and language. These include the senses of agency, of physical cohesion, of continuity in time, of having intentions in mind, and other such experiences..." —Daniel Stern, M.D., The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985.

Before Children Talk... They Understand a Lot!

When we talk about the importance of language, we almost automatically think in terms of when the child begins to speak. But long before your child speaks, she is listening—and understanding far more than we used to think.

In the last newsletter, we began to discuss toddlers. We noted three factors that occur to spark the transition from infancy to toddlerhood: the onset of language, self-awareness, and mobility.

This period from about 2-5 years is extremely important and interesting. It is filled with opportunities for growth, and also for difficulties. It is during this period that we, as child analysts, begin to see children and parents who are needing help. Often parents call during this time because their child has been asked to leave preschool.

Interestingly, the key issue in this period involves the onset of language and the changes in the brain which occur during this time. Therefore, we will spend the next few newsletters discussing various aspects of language, and how things can go spectacularly well, and how things can get off track.

Before Your Child Talks: Hearing and Understanding

During infancy, the baby and caretakers communicate through facial expressions and gestures and sounds. We described this process in detail in What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use to Express Their Feelings.

All babies have a universal, inherited, built-in signaling system with which they both send and receive signals. This signaling is done especially through facial expressions and vocalizations. These signals are called feelings—such as joy, surprise, anger, and fear.

At first, then, a child may gather meaning through your tone of voice, inflection, gestures, and facial expressions. Studies have shown that soothing words and tones register differently to an infant than distressed and angry sounds or words. But it is also stunning to realize how quickly very young children understand the meaning of words themselves.

From the earliest days of their lives, children are developing their vocabulary. At this young age, the child's ability to understand words far outstrips her ability to speak words. This is one reason it makes good sense to talk a lot with very young children... they are learning words and meanings long before they can speak!

It is a thrill when parents realize how much a child is processing and learning before she utters her first word. Finally, they can talk to their children and be clearly understood. "Please bring your shoes to me so we can put them on"... and lo and behold, the child delivers her sneakers. "Will you please pick up your trains off the floor, so no one steps on them and breaks them?" And he picks up his trains. The child may not be able to speak yet, but he is accumulating an understanding of many, many words—far more than he will be able to put a voice to for months and months.

So, a child is never too young to understand what's going on (even if on a purely emotional level), and a child is never too young to talk to. But once you realize that, you can also ask yourself: What kind of talk? What words? To what end?

Almost any talking and words can be a useful learning experience for your child. But an especially useful strategy with your preverbal child is labeling her feelings with words. The payoff is terrific if words for feelings can be brought into the conversations at the earliest possible time.

As we have explained in the previous newsletters, preverbal babies and infants use nine signals to express their needs, fears, feelings, and desires. These signals (excitement, joy, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell) are communicated through facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures.

Parents can help young children become aware of their feelings (and feel that the parents "get them") by using the words for the nine signals whenever an opportunity presents itself. "You are excited about that glitter make-up!" "You felt a lot of fear when the dog ran up so fast." "You were angry when I said no more cookies before dinner."


Some research suggests that the parents' capacity to link words and feelings is an important aspect of a good parent-child relationship and the healthy development of the child's personality. Greg Lowder and his colleagues are psychoanalytic researchers from New York and California. Over the past several years, they have explored this issue in an intriguing set of studies.

In 2007, these researchers eloquently summarized the work as follows: "Many factors come to bear on how successfully a mother will be able to manage the parenting experience. A primary factor may be her ability to connect her emotions to language. Her ability to do so, more or less successfully, will affect her capacity to regulate emotions as they arise, along with her ability to receive support from others by successfully communicating what she feels."


Here's an example of putting words to feelings before the child can talk. Say your infant daughter is crawling toward a toy and accidentally puts her hand on a sharp thumbtack. Her eyebrows will arch in the middle, the corners of her mouth will drop down, her chin will begin to quiver, she may begin crying and then getting red in the face and howling.

Upon seeing or hearing this, you will probably come over, pick her up, say something like, "Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry," reassure her, hold her, perhaps kiss her hand where it hurts. What have you done here? You have correctly perceived that the thumbtack triggered your daughter's distress, fear, and then possibly excessive distress and angry feelings. You responded by attending to the trigger of her pain, getting rid of the thumbtack, kissing the hurt hand, and comforting her.

In this instance, you have understood your daughter's reactions—you have translated her facial expressions and cries into the feelings of distress, anger, and fear. This is translating. Many parents are able to do this instinctively—understand what feelings their baby is expressing through facial expressions and cries.

Some parents are also aware of the existence of inborn feelings and are able to translate the expressions into words at the time: "Oh, dear, that hurt, didn't it? I can see you are distressed and scared."

Let's look at another example. Your little boy is crawling on the floor and spots a small red car. He picks it up, looks at it intensely, his eyebrows a bit down, and his mouth slightly open. Now he begins to play more actively with it, gurgling delightedly as he runs it back and forth along the floor.

You realize he is interested in the little car, and he is getting excited as he plays with it. Technically, the affect of interest-to-excitement has been triggered—exactly what you want. You might even put it into words for him: "You sure are interested in that car—that's great! You really are excited!"

This is the earliest kind of translating—moving from facial expressions and vocalizations into feelings. Later, we will discuss another type of translating, which is harder for many parents—going from the child's words back to their feelings.


A child's relationship to words and the ability to use them is first nurtured while they are still unable to talk. Parents may find it hard to believe how much influence they have over their child's healthy development at this stage. The benefits of using words and a good vocabulary even before children talk are stunning!

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