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Language Development

Beyond the toddler years

Source: Shutterstock

We have been exploring the enigma of language—its power in helping us understand one another, and the mischief caused by misinterpretations.

Consider again this excerpt of a letter Wilbur Wright sent to Octave Chanute, the friend and mentor of the Wright brothers with whom they had a falling out—and Wilbur’s eloquence in wanting to use language to discuss the feelings and avoid a rupture:

“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).

Language Beyond the Toddler Years

We ended last month discussing the concept of translation: the notion of putting words to feelings and feelings into words. 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 these 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 facial expressions and vocalizations 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 or more of a privilege in which to participate.

Language, Translation, and Later Development

Up to now, we have talked about the psychology of feelings primarily in the context of infancy and early childhood. It is time to put feelings into the larger scope of individual development and ages beyond childhood.

To make a very long story somewhat shorter, the basic built-in affects or feelings remain intact as we get older. These nine rapid affect responses are still there, but now the subjective sensations are describable with words. We gain more control over our feelings and responses. These feelings blend together with each other and with experience to create our more complex emotional life.

Studies using high-speed film show this relationship between our built-in responses and our conscious control. When subjects are asked to keep smiling even in the face of a slight pinprick, the high-speed film picks up the subjects’ brief facial expressions of distress and anger in response to the pinprick before resuming the smile. The naked eye does not see this change of expression. The subcortical part of the brain (which is responsible for the preverbal, built-in feelings and responses), as well as the cortex (our conscious efforts to understand and manage our feelings and responses), are both operating as we grow older.

This is why we have emphasized the importance of language and use of words in dealing with feelings. When words are linked with feelings in a young child, we are, in essence, helping the cortex do its job in better managing our feelings.

The cortex has the capacity to use symbols—words—for various biological responses and feelings. The cortex enhances our capacities to deal with our biological responses. Thus, we gain greater tension-regulation, via the cortex, as we put words to feelings. Impulsive action lessens; awareness, thinking, and verbalizing increase. These opportunities for greater cortical involvement begin around 18 months in the child. This is what allows for greater self-awareness, self-consciousness, tension-regulation (or affect-regulation), words instead of actions.

Words and Feelings

The onset of language, or cortical involvement, is a double-edged sword, as infant-researcher Daniel Stern (1985) has put it. With the benefits come the liabilities, namely that words mean different things to different people, can be used to deceive and distort, and can split us from our underlying biological substrate. Thus, while our emotional life gets more complex as affects combine with each other and experience, it is useful to go back to the basics, the nine built-in feeling responses.

What does this mean, to go back to the basics?

It means focusing on the affects, the feelings. It means translating backward, in a sense: Here are the words and actions; what are the feelings that motivated and caused the words and actions?

As we saw earlier: The young child says, “I hate you… I no like you!” What are the feelings? Distress and anger. Or with adolescents: A 15-year-old waiting for the train becomes bored, not anxious or excited. He begins fooling around with the various luggage tags on a pile of suitcases on a cart. His parents finally get upset and tell him to stop.

But what’s happening here? The stimulus-seeking brain is doing just what it’s supposed to do—and the teenager is bored! Interest and enjoyment are not being triggered. So the answer is easy—translate back to the need for interest and enjoyment. What reading, or game, or music might be of interest? One sees this all the time—smaller children at restaurants or in the grocery stores, for instance.

Beyond Early Childhood: Adolescence Through Adulthood

The nine basic feelings help make sense of all developmental phases—infancy through early childhood through adolescence through adulthood through old age. Focus on the positive affects of interest and enjoyment—this is effective in understanding and altering behavior at any age. Attend to the causes of negative affects, and try to fix whatever has triggered distress, anger, shame, and so on—this too is important at any age.

As the child ages, however, the translation becomes different because of words.

In infancy, one looks to facial expressions and vocalizations for clues to what feelings are being expressed. In later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, one looks to words and actions and then translates from these to the feelings.

Therapeutic Implications and Interpersonal Skills

This notion of translating from words back to feelings also holds up clinically with patients. The effectiveness of psychotherapy involves the patient-therapist relationship and understanding and interpreting the patient’s internal world. The key constant in work with patients is trying to understand the underlying feelings—the feelings which lie, consciously or unconsciously, behind a patient’s words and actions. It is helping people understand what they are feeling, what they are interested in, and what they are distressed by that gets them on track.

Many patients do not know who they are, what they really like or dislike. To some extent, they have developed what Winnicott called a "False Self," a need to comply, a lack of sense of what is authentic and genuine to them. How this happens, and what we do clinically to help, is somewhat complicated. But in some sense, it boils down to this: We are so eager to teach our children, to impart information, to socialize them, that we forget to learn about them and help them learn about themselves.

Further, we often impose various religious systems on them to help them control their feelings and impulses and actions—usually because we don’t understand how feelings really work. We are well-intentioned—without knowing how feelings work, we impose external systems to help us deal with a child’s feelings, words, and behaviors.

Elicit Rather Than Impose

There is another option—that is, being open to how feelings do seem to work internally. And with that in mind, we have to turn much of the foregoing on its head—we need to learn from the child! Rather than continuing to impose our systems and likes and dislikes, we need to learn what the child likes, dislikes, is interested in, or bored by.

This is what lies behind Stanley Greenspan’s "Floortime" concept. The parent acts as a benign assistant to the play; he/she validates the child’s interests and play. In this way, the parent learns about their child, and the child learns what he/she likes and dislikes—i.e., who they are! This is a reciprocal process—the child learns from us, and we learn from the child.

In the midst of our desire to socialize the child, we often forget to learn from her. The concept underlying much of this is that the child is separate from us, a separate new individual, with her own likes and dislikes—and who she is, and how she is different from and similar to us, is crucial to her development. This learning from her is crucial in terms of her learning about herself. And her learning about herself is crucial in developing a career she enjoys and can commit to 110 percent, finding a partner whom she loves, and so on.

Feelings, Actions, and Interpersonal Skills

We have discussed the importance of linking feelings and words. This process has benefits in enhancing tension-regulation and self-soothing, promoting verbalization, and increasing thoughtfulness, rather than impulsive action.

However, we also need to remember that verbalizing—using words—is also an action. We strive for as much self-awareness as possible—internal freedom to have whatever thoughts and feelings come to our mind. We want to be playful with our various feelings and fantasies inside of ourselves.

This awareness permits us greater control over our actions and behaviors. Suppressing and repressing our inner feelings can make it more difficult to control ourselves. We have a better chance of controlling our behaviors if we are aware of our feelings and what is motivating us.

Similarly, in terms of interpersonal skills, it is useful to appreciate that our words are actions. We can hurt or heal with words. So, while one promotes linking words with feelings, one also needs to be aware of the impact on others of the words and verbalizing. As Aristotle said, “Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy” (The Nicomachean Ethics).

In Next Month's Newsletter…

We are exploring the origins of human development and what we call the three keys: emotions, language, and cognition. This month's Newsletter completed our investigation of language. Next month, we will begin to examine cognition (reason, self-awareness, intelligence, meaning, perceiving and acquiring knowledge). We then will be ready to discuss how these three keys may aid us in addressing some of the major problems in our society.


References for Interested Readers

Greenspan SI (1992). Infancy and early childhood: The practice of clinical assessment and intervention with emotional and developmental challenges. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

McCullough D (2015). The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stern D (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Winnicott DW (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, 1965 (pp. 140-152). New York: International Universities Press.


The Magician's Hat
Author: Malcolm Mitchell
Art: Dennis Campay

The author, Malcolm Mitchell, is a professional football player for the New England Patriots. He is dedicated to inspiring children to read. The Magician’s Hat is a story about encouraging children to “Follow your dreams, and they will take you wherever you want to go.” This is one of the many ways of saying: Try to elicit from children their interests and then support that pursuit.