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“I’ll Talk To You When You Use Your Words”

“Calm down! Use your words!”

I remember the day I yelled those words at my toddler-aged daughter as she writhed around on the floor of her bedroom, upset at some seemingly small transgression on my part, but utterly unwilling—or so I thought—to tell me what was going on.

My blood started to boil as I got increasingly frustrated by her being so out of control, and my inability to discern what was going on or how to fix it.

The problem was, in my effort to get my daughter to communicate with me in a way that I understood, her emotions escalated until she was so far gone she essentially collapsed into a sobbing mess.

Ever been there?  Even telling the story can put me right back in the heat of the moment…a moment I’m guessing you’ve also experienced.  If you are a parent or caregiver, you’ve most likely said something like I did that day.  And if you haven’t, surely you’ve heard other parents say it to their little ones.

But does it work?

The answer to that lies in the science.

Are we expecting too much?

When our children are tiny babies, most of us instinctively know that we need to respond to their every need—and that they convey those needs by crying.  We pick them up, we feed them, we change them, and we help them sleep.  That’s just the rhythm of things, and it works (not without its frustrations, mind you, but it works).

But as soon as our children become verbal and ambulatory—that is, they can walk and talk—we all too often forget how very young they still are, and that their brains are still roughly two decades from being fully developed.  That’s right: two decades.

As humans, our brains, specifically our prefrontal cortexes, are not fully developed until somewhere between the ages of 25-27 according to the most recent brain science.  And yet, our children’s ability to walk and talk and reason and think in a general sense does a remarkably good job at convincing us otherwise.

And so when they start acting like “babies” again, many of us assume the worst—that they are being difficult just to be difficult, and that they are trying to manipulate us.   But is that really true?

What is going on in the brain?

It turns out that the right side of our brains—the right hemisphere—specializes in nonverbal, emotional, and social processing, and enables us to use nonverbal signals as we communicate with one another. In other words, it regulates emotion.

Our left brains on the other hand, are more focused on intellectual and rational processing—that is, verbal communication.

We need both sides; both are critical to effective in-tune communication.  Here’s the problem: in the first couple years of life, we are inherently right-brained.  We are driven by, and primarily communicate through, emotion.

Only as we grow, does the connection between the two sides begin to develop.  However, according to Dr. Dan Siegel, for many years the band of tissue that connects both sides of the brain—the corpus callosum—is really immature.

That means that as our children grow, learning to connect the two sides and put words (left side) to our emotions (right side) is a process, and one that can take years to develop.

Moreover, when our children get flooded with emotion—fear, sadness, a temper tantrum—their brains become even more dis-integrated than they already are, making it nearly impossible for them to put language to what is going on.

What does this all mean?

Telling a dysregulated child—one overwhelmed by frustration, fear, sadness, or anger—to “use your words” is an exercise in almost-guaranteed futility.

What’s more, hearing this from a trusted caregiver may cause even more frustration, fear, sadness, or anger as they struggle to meet the impossible demands of the adult they love.

They’re not failing to “use their words” because they don’t want to.  They’re failing to use their words because they can’t.

A toddler, a preschooler, and even a school-age child needs more from us. They need us to recognize that although they can walk and talk, their brains are simply not ready for the demands that “use your words” places on them.

They need us to lean into their discomfort, get into our own right brains, and help them regulate the strong emotions they are not able to.

Sound easier said than done?  You’re right—it is. So next week, let’s talk more about what to do instead. The effort will be worth it; we truly will reap what we sow.

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Christy Keating fun headshot

Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.