As you undoubtedly already know from experience, children from hard places often express their needs or feelings through throwing a fit, withdrawing from you or running away, or all out aggressive physical behaviors. Often these behaviors can seem to come from out of nowhere and with little provocation. Many times we parents or caregivers are stumped as to what just set them off.
As you learn to understand the underlying reasons for the behaviors (maybe they are fear-based, for example) it is also important for you to help you child express their needs and feelings by using their words, not those maladaptive behaviors. But don’t count on your child naturally being able to express them-self with words or even to know the importance of using their words. Maybe they have not had many positive experiences using their voice to get their basic needs met. Or perhaps they lack the social or cognitive skills. Whatever the reason for the deficit, they will need you to navigate this with them, until they can handle it on their own. It may take time.
One way to help them understand how to talk about their needs and feelings is to model for them how you are feeling on any given day. “Right now I am feeling sad. What are you feeling?” This helps them to not only build vocabulary for their feelings, but it normalizes feelings – everyone has them.
Another way to help them is through life value scripts. A life value script is a phrase made up of the fewest words necessary to get the idea across to teach your child the social skills necessary to successfully navigate their world without resorting to maladaptive behaviors. One such life value script is “use your words”, which teaches them to put down the physical behavior they are using to ‘survive’ and instead to use their words to get their needs met.
When you practice “use your words” do so when you child is calm and you are sharing a connective moment. By practicing this life script often, you are proactively teaching the skills, not just having to react and correct the negative. They need to know that this is a good thing for them to do. Children from hard places often use physical aggression as a survival technique long after the threat to them is over; it becomes habit. Teaching them to use their words to get their needs met will allow them to replace old coping mechanisms that no long serve them. You have to offer a new way of communicating if you expect the old way to be replaced by them.
You will need to prompt them often to “use your words” and when they do, you will need to hold the moment with them and not judge the rightness or wrongness of their words. The goal is to add the script, “use your words” as a way for them to remember in the moment that there is a better way to express themselves than acting out. In order for them to feel safe expressing themselves using their words, you will need to be ok today that their words may sting in some cases. The day you hear those words is not the day you teach them to talk kindly. First steps first and the first step is to get them to verbally express their inner world instead of resorting to physical violence or running away.
When you add praise after they express themselves using words (even if their expression is explosive), they will learn that you are a safe space for them. “That’s great using your words!” When children are given voice,*they begin to feel safe and until they feel safe, even if they are safe, they won’t relax and let down their guard enough to let you in their world.
*click on the link for a short video from Dr. Purvis on giving voice in a more general sense.