Raising an emotionally expressive child is one of the biggest challenges of parenting for those of us who weren’t allowed to express our feelings as children. Here’s how to encourage your child to be expressive, yet respectful.
A baby who can express needs becomes a child who can express feelings. This is why we emphasize the importance of being responsive to your baby’s cues. A one-month-old cries to express his need for food or holding. Parents pick up on these cues and respond sensitively. Baby learns that these impulses within himself have meaning. His cries bring comforting responses. Expressing his needs leads to good things. By being open and responsive to baby’s cues, parents affirm baby’s self-expression. When parents anticipate needs by recognizing subtle pre-cry signals, baby learns a greater variety of ways to express himself and doesn’t have to cry to get what he needs. This makes him a joy to have around, which insures that his parents will continue to be sympathetic to his needs. The connected baby becomes a child who is capable of recognizing and showing deep feelings.
Not so the disconnected infant. A baby who is dutifully scheduled, left to cry it out, and whose well-meaning parents fall prey to the fear-of-spoiling advice, learns early that the caregiving world is not responsive to his needs. He learns to stop asking. This baby learns to ignore his feelings at an early age. He learns neither to identify nor to express them. On the surface, this little person is a “good” baby; he doesn’t bother anybody. He adjusts to the inflexible schedule, sleeps through the night, and is convenient to have around. This “good” baby, seemingly so “well-disciplined,” is at risk for becoming a withdrawn child and an internally angry, depressed adult. Other disconnected infants cry harder when they receive no response, becoming obnoxious and openly angry. These babies become children who are very hard to manage. They carry these feelings into adulthood, and like the “good” baby are at risk of ending up in the psychologist’s office. (This “good baby” or “obnoxious baby” is different from the temperamentally easy baby or difficult baby.)
The expressive baby and responsive parent bring a winning combination into toddlerhood. Because baby’s cues were listened to and decoded in the first year, the toddler is better able to express himself. He is now a bigger person with bigger needs. The infant who learned to express his needs now becomes the toddler who is in touch with his feelings. Mothers tell us, “My toddler doesn’t have many words yet and it drives me nuts trying to understand him.” Martha has gotten very adept at reading our toddlers’ eyes. When she’s not sure what the toddler is “saying,” she can get a clue from the expression in the eyes. The toddler knows exactly what he is telling you, and his eyes often speak more eloquently than his tongue. Intently watching the eyes as your toddler “bares his soul” will often help the garbled words suddenly make sense.
Toddlers are little persons with big needs, who have a limited ability to communicate these needs. Help them. Meet your toddler at eye- to-eye level when he is talking to you. Be attentive even when you don’t understand what your toddler is trying to say. Give body language cues (nodding your head, eye-to-eye contact, hand on shoulder) that you are trying to understand his viewpoint. Even when you can’t stop what you are doing you can at least make voice contact with your child. He isn’t mature enough to understand why your needs are more pressing than his at this moment, but hearing you talk to him (“Tell mama what you want…”) will help him feel that you care about him.
Lauren, our two-year-old, hurts her finger. She holds her hurt finger up to me, “Daddy, kiss owie.” I know she’s not really hurt, because she’d be crying in pain if she’d pinched her finger hard. I could dismiss this and get back to my important agenda, but my heart looks behind the eyes of my child. I realize that this very healthy looking finger is not the issue. The fact that Lauren feels her finger is hurt is the issue. Lauren learned she can use her feelings to get my attention and my sympathy, and by showing my own emotional interest in her plight, I can help her develop her expressiveness and let her know I care about her finger just as much as she does. “Show me where it hurts. How badly does it bother you?” I look into her eyes sympathetically and sensitively examine her finger. “Let me show you how to make it better.” I put a bandage on her finger or show her how to go to the freezer for the “boo-boo bunny” (a cloth container for ice cubes). I then hold her on my lap for a few minutes until her attention is diverted to something new. The inexperienced parent may hesitate to make such a fuss over “nothing.” The veteran realizes how sensitive little children are to insignificant trauma to their bodies. From a child’s viewpoint, the tiniest pinprick represents a hole in his body, and he needs the bandage to repair the leak.
Children can be exasperating, draining, and a downright nuisance when they overreact to life’s little setbacks. Children are like that. They seem to time their dramatic performances for the most inconvenient time for their audience. Nevertheless, these “small” events are important to them.
Don’t try to get a child to stuff her feelings. When a child is upset, sit back, look into her eyes, and give her time and space to express herself. Resist the urge to unload your reaction—anger, judgment, logic. Your child is not in a receptive frame of mind to receive any of these. Remarks that convey your adult assessment of the situation tell the child that she should suppress her own feelings. Feeling stuffers give the child the message that you are not accepting of her emotions, and cause the child to clam up. It’s a lose-lose situation. The child loses the ability to express herself, and you become an unaccepting parent whose child learns not to open up to you. A distance develops between parent and child.