I’ve heard it said that kids express their feelings through actions. Actions are their words when they don’t know how to express themselves. It seems like every child goes through a stage of using their body to communicate rather than their words. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or fun, for parents!
- baby is crying — it hurts toddler’s ears. Toddler hits baby because baby is “being mean.”
- cat steals toddler’s toys — toddler is upset and swats at cat to grab the toy back.
- mom is busy on phone — toddler wants attention, hits or pushes mom.
- toddler gets pushed by another toddler — both are upset, and start hitting.
- toddler doesn’t like that an older kid is doing something “wrong” — goes to hit bigger kid for “not listening.”
So, how can we teach kids to use their words instead of getting physical? Is it really that simple?
Sometimes it’s not.
Kids hit and become physical for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s due to sensory overload, and an inability to process things because of the environment around them. Other times, strong emotions can dominate their mind, and it’s tough to not act in the moment.
Physical communication can also be a cry for attention. An attempt to communicate feelings of sadness, rejection, loneliness. Other times, it may be a planned way to get attention.
Because sometimes, any attention is better than no attention. But that doesn’t solve our problem, does it? As we grapple with understanding the “why” behind physical communication, it’s not like we can put our response, our discipline and correction, on hold. Toddlers who communicate physically need to be redirected. They need help verbalizing their feelings, and learning that there are other, more appropriate ways to respond to something that frustrates them or makes them feel bad.
When a child reacts physically, it can be tempting for a parent to respond forcefully and angrily. Especially if the action seems to be done out of malice. But sometimes it does more good to understand the root of the problem. Sometimes it helps to say, “come here, let me hold you while we talk this through.” Or, maybe suggest: “if you need my attention, a better way to get it would be to use your words.”
When my son uses his body to communicate instead of his words, I do my best to talk things through with him. If another child, or an animal, is being hurt, a stern initial reaction may be necessary. But then, it’s time to focus in on the motivation, the trigger for the outburst.
Instead of honing in on how it is mean to do ______, perhaps the better approach is to ask, “what were you feeling when you did ______?” If the child evades giving an answer, perhaps the emotion is not describable. Maybe suggesting emotions could help. “Are you sad, angry, lonely, upset, hurt….” It’s amazing how helpful it can be to give words to a child so that their emotions can be communicated.
Once the emotional motivation is understood, then alternate actions can be taught. “Instead of hitting back, next time use your words to say, ‘please stop.’ Or walk away. Or find an adult.” If a child is really in need of a physical outlet, then perhaps it would be good to provide an example of when such physical behavior is appropriate. “We don’t hit people. We hit balls with bats, we hit nails with hammers.”
Consistent reinforcement of what is inappropriate physically, as well as what an appropriate response might be, …well, it may take time for you to see results. But don’t just focus in on the negative behavior. Make sure to reinforce the positive communication, both verbal and physical. “I see you are being so sweet to your baby sister, thank you for making her giggle, and for hugging her gently.”
But sometimes, kids get physical for a simpler reason. They have too much energy pent up — and need to blow off some steam. Maybe a daily rough-housing session with mom or dad could use up some of that energy. Or a fun time spent outside running after a soccer ball. By finding appropriate ways to “get physical,” kids often become more self-controlled in situations where physical communication isn’t warranted.
What advice, ideas, or tips do you have for helping kids deal with their emotions and learn to communicate with their words?