A Universal Language

Language. It’s great, but can be extremely frustrating if we cannot understand the language of the individual we are trying to communicate with.

When working with children, counselors often start by talking with parents to share how child counseling is different from an individual adult seeking counseling. You see, we have various types of communication or language. Some speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Sign Language, etc. Our kids are different. There is a universal language of children, play!

Reflecting on previous experiences, and how I’ve been able to communicate with children whom I had no idea their verbal language and they didn’t know English, yet we were able to connect through play and understand one another. These interactions increased my other senses. I noticed their smiles or the anger in their eyes, I noticed when they wanted me to come closer or when they wanted me to stay back. I noticed the gentle touch they gave when they felt safe. I could go on, but I believe we can make a difference with all kiddos, we just need to work to determine what their language is. Kids speak through play, physical responses, and sounds (and yes, they can also talk but that may not be a primary language). How can they use play, sounds, and physical responses as a language, you ask? I’m so glad you did! 

As a child’s counselor, I find myself reflecting on the emotional responses a child is displaying in the 50 minutes I am allowed with them each week. A child will often look at me and through their facial expressions and behaviors, I quickly learn if I am understanding them correctly or if I’m incorrect in my thoughts. Kiddos can be the most complex individuals or the simplest to understand. Sometimes it can be both. It’s not easy to know what our kids need in every situation. I like to try to see through a child’s lens.

Play Based Counseling

When children play they often act out what is happening in their lives (I’m sure you’ve seen a child pretending to cook a meal or drive a car), when we allow them to direct and guide the play they’re learning how to control their actions and communicate what is going on in their lives. 

Working with children in a counseling room I begin to pick on various cues. A child who is experiencing violence or viewing violence often has a theme of violence in play. A child who lives in an environment where they feel safe often displays gentle play. I don’t want you to begin to believe that if a child displays one of those themes it automatically means they are experiencing the examples above because that is not the case. I would like to see you start noticing their play and try to understand the child’s world through their eyes. I would be honored to help you begin to notice these things through family counseling! 

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios in the various languages of children: 

  1. A child goes to a store with his or her mother. The child sees a toy that he or she would like and decides to communicate this desire with their mom. Some children may use the words, “Mommy, I want that toy”. Some children may use their voice, but not in words, this may look like screaming or crying. Some children may stare at the toy without saying a word as the mom continues to push him or her in the cart past the toy aisle.  
  2. A father is dropping his child off at school, he has to stay in the car due to the drop-off procedures. One child might hop out of the car, look and wave to their father stating, “See you later, dad!”. Another child might refuse to get out of the car, murmuring unclear responses with a look of distress. A third child may put her head down, grab her things and get out of the car. 

Let’s think about the scenarios above. At the store one child simply communicated her desire, the second and third did not. I’m curious, what do you think the children were communicating to their mothers? Was there anything other than wanting a toy that the child was communicating to his or her mom? In the second scenario, as the father drops off the child at school one child easily got out of the car and went into school, but what about the other two? What did those kiddos need at the moment?

A Child’s Connection

It’s easy to quickly assume that the children are being defiant, not listening, or are simply trying to cause a scene. But what if we looked at the other side of the situation?

  • What if the children who we could quickly assume are not listing are actually looking for a connection?
  • What if they desire to be assured that they will be okay at school and that they’ll be picked up as soon as school is out?
  • What if a child who wanted the toy at the store really wanted to have some special playtime with their mom at home?
  • What if we just noticed our child’s emotional responses and then worked to connect with them?

It’s tough. As adults, we often find that our emotions are tough to handle too. You’re not alone. 

Child Development

A child’s brain, like an adult, has automatic responses. The right side of the brain (which includes creativity and emotion) tends to be stronger for young individuals. The display of emotional response is a way they have learned to obtain their needs. For example, a baby learns that a cry signals their caretaker to change their diaper or feed them. The left side of the brain is more of the executive functioning, it is the part that allows us to reason with a situation. Once a strong emotional response has been activated it’s difficult to reason (if we are honest, this is with children and adults alike) and we must first attune to the emotions, calm our nervous system and then begin to understand. This is another area that we, at Restoration Counseling, enjoy working with families. We have many tools to practice calming practices and help the family to calm their bodies down to increase positive interactions.

Have you had a moment with your child where they ask to be held, you hold them for a few moments, and then they want to get back down? This could be a sign of secure attachment. Your child wants to feel your warmth and love and this soothes their little bodies. I encourage you to notice your child’s responses and begin to work toward learning their language. 

What game are you going to play with your child today?

written by Mallory Wendling, PLPC

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