Young children express themselves mostly through play.
Young children are very sensitive to and strongly influenced by the environment
they live in and those around them. Yet because of their immaturity, they may not
be able to express themselves verbally. Children show much of what they are thinking and feeling, and how things affect them through their play and behavior. When they do express themselves verbally, it often is brief and they are quickly on to other things.
For example, Barbara, age four, is in the midst of playing with her dolls when she looks up at her mother and says, "Why isn’t daddy home?”
Her mother, Jan says, "I don't know," and begins to elaborate, but Barbara is no longer paying attention; she’s returned to her dolls. When Jan tries to engage her, Barbara shows no interest, so Jan lets the subject drop.
Jan’s reaction is a good one. If she were to insist that Barbara talk to her, it may do more harm than good in that it could inhibit Barbara from ever raising the subject again. Sometimes, you may have only a moment to respond before your child goes on to something else, and that’s good enough.
Jan could try saying something like; “You’re concerned that daddy’s not home yet.” This would show Barbara that her mother knows how she feels. Then, Jan can wait to see if Barbara continues. If she doesn't, Jan could say something like, "I look forward to seeing daddy too.” In this way, Jan would share her own feelings in a respectful way.
Children use play as a way to understand their world, work out their problems, and find solutions to problems that are hard to grasp or bother them. It is also a way for them to feel good about themselves because through play they learn about accomplishment and mastery. Joining with your child and letting your child lead you in the play activity makes him feel satisfied and secure. He may not need to talk about anything else. If you press him to talk, you will probably both end up feeling frustrated.
It's important to be receptive to what we call teachable moments. Be prepared to respond when you perceive that your child is ready and then follow your child's lead.
Here’s such a moment: Johnny, age three, asks Sam, his dad, "Why do I have to go to day care?"
Sam could explain that it’s important to be with other children, or that he has to go to work. But instead, he realizes that he first needs to respond to Johnny’s feelings. So he says, “You’re not happy about going.”
Johnny says, "Yes, I want to be with you.”
“It makes me feel good that you want to be with me,” Sam says, going to a positive feeling first. Then, he refers to his own feelings by saying, “That’s important to me, too."
Only after says this does Sam become specific and answer Johnny’s question with facts: "It's important to go to day care because I feel better knowing where you are and that you are safe when I'm at work.”
This was a teachable moment. Sam paid attention to Johnny’s feelings, acknowledged both their feelings, and offered a reasonable explanation. This demonstrates Sam’s respect for his son. As a result, Johnny truly “heard” his father.
When talking with young children, keep the following in mind:
1. Young children express themselves mostly through play.
2. Play is how they go about understanding their world and experiences.
3. Letting a young child lead you in play helps you understand the child better.
4. It may be hard to get a young child to let you know that she understands you. Forcing her to respond may be threatening to her and frustrating for you.
5. Even though children may not seem to be showing you that they understand, they probably do.
6. Keep your comments short and simple. As much as possible, try to phrase things in children’s terms, let them know you understand their feelings and use your feelings when you want to let them know what you want. For example, “You’d like to keep playing but I’m unhappy that the toys aren’t picked up,” and “The rule is that toys are put away before dinner.”
7. If you want children to understand or do something, you need to be patient; repeat it a few times; gently convey through your movements what you want; and try not to act out of your frustration.
8. Try to be consistent, and have clear rules and expectations.
9. Pay attention to children’s feelings when talking to them.
Read these nine suggestions over a few times. It takes a little practice to use them consistently. Be patient with yourself. You’ll get it after a while.