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When Children Begin to Talk

Language represents a huge developmental leap.

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Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. “But it isn’t true,” Orville responded emphatically, “to say we had no special advantages… the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” 
– David McCullough, 2015 (The Wright Brothers, p.18)

“With the emergence (at around 18 months) of language… the child becomes a different being.”  
 – Barbara Fajardo, Ph.D.

I still remember the time my son said his first word. We were in the kitchen. He looked up over the counter, saw some fruit, and said “ap-ple.” I was stunned, then joyful—and surprisingly oblivious, at that moment, to the enormous and inspiring power that had been unleashed.

When a child speaks her first words, there is often a sense of relief. For months and months after a baby is born, parents struggle to understand the various noises, gestures and expressions an infant uses to express needs, feelings and thoughts. It’s a great thrill when you begin to sense that your child can understand what you are saying…you are beginning to function in the same reality, one shaped by words.

The toddler years provide spectacular opportunities for enhancing intellectual and emotional development. Language is a large part of this, opening up an entire new world of growth during the early years. And to hear a toddler begin to talk is an astonishing and poignant moment.

A Leap in Development

Language represents a huge developmental leap. Think of all the things we can accomplish with our words and language. We can enhance relationships with our children. We can share feelings and ideas. We can communicate complex thoughts and abstractions. We can describe physical sensations, and music, and visual forms and art. We can tell jokes, share problems, discuss our sadness, sing songs, talk about likes and dislikes, tell people we love them or are angry at them. Our sophisticated as well as basic feelings and most of our complex thoughts can be put into language.

However, as the infant researcher and psychoanalyst Daniel Stern, M.D., noted: Language is a double-edged sword—it can distort as well as enhance. People often attribute different meanings to words. We come to words with different experiences. It is easy to misunderstand what is being conveyed with words.

Yet, as the linguist and psychoanalyst Bonnie Litowitz, Ph.D., has described (2014), language provides the means by which we can sort out misinterpretations. We can discuss what each of us meant, and perhaps come closer to a consensual understanding of the feelings and motivations and meaning of what was communicated.

So, as the child begins to talk, you may think, “Ah, this is getting so much easier.” And in some ways this makes sense. Words are a great tool. But like all tools they can be used to build things up or tear them down. As children begin to talk, these words can seem as much like a sledgehammer as anything else.

Many months after my son first said “ap-ple,” he’d expanded his vocabulary to include somewhat more hefty words, such as “No” and “I no like you!” I confess at that point I may have felt a little less joyous. But a toddler’s growing use of language can be a tremendous benefit to psychological development and tension-regulation.

Sometimes, it just takes some getting used to before you can understand what your child is really trying to say. As we discuss in more detail later, the single most effective tool at your disposal to help you hear, understand, and respond to your child’s verbal expressions of the feelings is translation—the back and forth process of changing (or translating) words back into feelings and feelings into words.

Speaking the Words

As children grow up—at around 2—they change how they give life to their feelings. The facial expressions they used so actively as infants, while still there, are joined by early words.

Once a child begins to talk, the task of helping a child learn to use words to appropriately express feelings—the whole gamut from joy to rage—can bring many and immediate rewards. Anny Katan, M.D., was a well-known child psychoanalyst who knew the Freud family and migrated to Cleveland after the war. She founded a therapeutic preschool in 1950, now the Hanna Perkins School. There she developed the new technique of treating troubled preschoolers by way of the parents.

She commented eloquently on the benefits of encouraging word use and talking in a child (1961): Verbalization, she said, increases the possibility of distinguishing between fantasies and reality. Verbalization leads to the integrating process, which in turn results in reality testing. If the child would verbalize his feelings, he can learn to delay action (such as a tantrum). The idea is “words, not actions.” This nicely sums up the benefit of encouraging words.

In a lovely article, psychoanalyst Paul Brinich, Ph.D., described the emergence of words and language through the various kinds of early parent-child communications (1982). Another psychoanalyst, John Gedo, M.D., used the term symbolic encoding to describe the process of connecting words to subjective experiences. He stressed the importance of this transformation in achieving tension-regulation and self-soothing (2005).

There is also extensive literature in experimental psychology which tends to support the efficacy of interpretation of affect, particularly as a viable form of emotional regulation. Experimental studies have found that verbalization (spoken or written) of current emotional experience reduces distress in contrast to no verbalization, verbalization of nonaffective material, distraction, or reappraisal (Frattaroli, 2005; Kircansky et al., 2012; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011). In addition, neuroimaging studies suggest that affect labeling diminishes the response of the amygdala and enhances the activity of the cortex (Lieberman et al., 2017).

An Example:

Ben at One Year Old
Here’s an example of the difference between pre-words and after-words.

Ben, a year old, and his mother are in the kitchen. Ben is in his highchair playing with a little toy car and having a snack. The car falls off and onto the floor. Ben begins to get distressed (mouth turned down, eyebrows arched). Mom can’t get to the car right away and says: “Hold on, Ben, I’ll get your car in a sec.” Ben relaxes a bit, he knows he has been understood and he looks forward to seeing the results. He’s really interested in the car, and when his mom takes a few seconds too long (in his view of things) to retrieve the car for him, his distress returns full blast. Then his distress morphs into anger. His face turns red and he lets out a cry of despair. Mother hears this, puts down the pan she’s working on, and says: “Okay, okay, I get it…here, Ben, here’s the car,” as she picks it up and hands it to him. Ben takes the car, smiles, and goes “vroom, vroom” as he runs it across his highchair table.

Ben at Two Years Old
Now…take a similar scenario a year later.

Ben, two years old, is in the highchair, playing with a car. It falls on the floor. “Car, car, car down,” he says, still asking for a response. Mom hears these words as a bit demanding but maintains her cool: “Just a second, honey, I’ve got my hands full.” Ben brightens at her voice but then, when some time goes by, he gets more distressed: “Car, car!” he yells. Mom, unconsciously reacting to the verbal response as she might to anyone who was talking AT her, says, “Hold on, I’ll be there, just wait a minute.” But to Ben, yelling “car, car” is just like letting out a cry of distress. If that is not responded to as it was when he was preverbal, he gets even more frustrated and angry. He expresses his distress by trotting out the limited vocabulary he has at his disposal: “No, no! I no like you…I hate you!”

This can be devastating to a parent. The sweet, needy, tender infant has turned into a nasty monster! These words may seem to be much more of a personal attack than the preverbal wailing that Ben’s mom (and all parents) was used to. So, in our example, Ben’s Mom feels put upon and assaulted. She doesn’t like what she is hearing in words. She doesn’t like the word “hate.” She snaps at him: “Ben, stop it! We don’t talk like that in this house.” And the battle is joined. You can fill in the blanks: Ben throws his food on the floor. Mom gets angry. Ben yells and says more. A timeout is declared.

What happened?
As the example of Ben and his mother illustrates, language brings with a complex set of reactions on the part of parent and child. On the plus side, language ushers in many positive results: Words give a child a way to enhance communication and to increase his or her capacity for understanding and regulating feeling. When a word is put to a feeling, one gains power over that feeling; there is an increasing ability to examine and mold it; to share or modify it; to enjoy it or to let it go. But there is also the opportunity for distortion and miscommunication which can lead to conflict. Language has become a double-edged sword.

With the nonverbal Ben, his mother was able to recognize the distress and anger, and she fixed what had triggered those feelings by picking up the car. Ben’s expression of his distress and anger did not throw her off. However, when Ben became verbal, using words such as “no like” and “hate,” his mother lost her bearings. She had trouble understanding that Ben was expressing exactly the same feelings as before: distress and anger. But when these feelings were put roughly into words, language itself threw a monkey wrench into their communication.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Is there a solution?
Yes—and we will now discuss the process of translation.

Feelings and Words

It is fascinating to consider that language has both profound benefits and liabilities. With language, we can share our feelings, perceptions, hopes and dreams and aspirations and disappointments, art, philosophy, science concepts, and on and on.

Daniel Stern noted about the emergence of language: “The possible ways of ‘being with’ another increase enormously… language appears to be a straightforward advantage for the augmentation of interpersonal experience. It makes parts of our known experience more shareable with others. In addition, it permits two people to create mutual experiences of meaning that had been unknown before and could never have existed until fashioned by words. It also finally permits the child to begin to construct a narrative of his own life” (1985, p. 162).

Yet, language brings with it serious problems. “Misinterpretation is inevitable when we communicate,” says Bonnie Litowitz (2014, p. 302). Or as Daniel Stern stated eloquently, “…in fact, language is a double-edged sword. It also makes some parts of our experience less shareable with ourselves and others. It drives a wedge between two simultaneous forms of interpersonal experience: as it is lived and as it is verbally represented” (1985, p. 162).  As Stern summarizes: “Language, then, causes a split in the experience of the self. It also moves relatedness onto the impersonal, abstract level intrinsic to language and away from the personal, immediate level…” (1985, p. 163).

However, language itself can be used as a vehicle to help us with respect to our misinterpretations. Again, Bonnie Litowitz: “Only our language has the capacity for self-reference. The use of language to talk about language allows us to discover if we are indeed ‘getting the message,’ are ‘on the same page’” (2014, p. 302). As we will discuss later, language (interpretation) and the relationship are both essential for therapeutic change. “As we strive to understand our patients, we are constantly trying to understand the nature and possible causes of our misinterpretations” (p. 302).

Consider, for instance, this remarkable excerpt from a letter Wilbur Wright wrote to an old mentor and friend Octave Chanute in 1910 after they had had a falling out:

“My brother and I do not form many intimate friendships, and do not lightly give them up. I believed that unless we could understand exactly how you felt, and you could understand how we felt, our friendship would tend to grow weaker instead of stronger. Through ignorance or thoughtlessness, each would be touching the other’s sore spots and causing unnecessary pain. We prize too highly the friendship which meant so much in the years of our early struggles to willingly see it worn away by uncorrected misunderstandings, which might be corrected by a frank discussion” (McCullough, 2015, p. 250).


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.

Translation Prior to the Child Talking

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 previously, human beings are born with built-in responses to stimuli: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. Over time, these combine with experience and themselves to form our more complex life. 

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, one enhances 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.

Putting words to feelings is a crucial part of psychotherapy—i.e. talking therapy. In addition to this clinical work, other research documents the effectiveness of this words-to-feelings process in treating various symptoms and disorders (Kircanski K, Lieberman, MD, Craske MG, 2012). The neurological structures and pathways involved in putting feelings into words are also becoming clearer (Lieberman et al. 2007).

What Words?

What words does one use in this translation process, i.e. putting feelings into words? There are no clear data on this point yet. It would seem to make sense to use the terms for the primary affects: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. These terms are experience-near, visceral, less intellectual.

Words such as happy or sad or upset are already combinations of primary affects or are primary affects which are hooked-up with experience. For instance, sad is distress associated with some kind of loss.

Translation After the Child Begins to Talk

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-anger
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.

Let’s expand on this notion of translating a toddler’s words back into the 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, gestures, and vocalizations 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 all the time; 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.

Example #1

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 especially 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 lifelong benefits. For example, 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.
Example #2

I was seeing a child who was having a lot of trouble adjusting to preschool. When she returned 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 calm the little girl down was if her mother would read to her.  But 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. 

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 using “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 not to get caught up in the child’s expression of a strong negative emotion, but instead to hear all this as an SOS signal—and to translate, understand, and help the child with whatever triggered the feelings.


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Frattaroli J (2005). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull 132: 823-865.

Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

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