Learning to Use Words
My daughter recently turned three, and this is an age of great leaps in communication skills for her and her friends. When she started going to school in January, she experienced conflict with other classmates that sometimes turned physical, with her on the receiving end of pushes, head-bonks, bites, etc. The first time this happened, her teacher told me that the child who hurt my daughter did so because she didn’t have the words yet to express frustration, so acted physically instead. This struck me deeply, and helped me to understand so much about toddler behavior. There are many ways that toddlers act out when they don’t know how to use their words yet. They scream, push, grab, and/or bite until they learn to use words to express the intense feelings they are having, or to ask for what they want. It’s normal, and completely understandable even if it is incredibly annoying to us as adults.
At three, my daughter and her friends are going through an exciting transition. They are all learning (in increments, of course) how to use their words rather than act like wild animals to express frustration or desire. The other day in class, I was moved and impressed to witness a classmate asking my daughter if she could hug her, AND accepting her answer of “No.” In the past she would run up to her and grab her, which didn’t go over very well. Yesterday, I accidentally bumped my daughter’s head with something I was carrying. She started to have a screaming tantrum, but then was able to calm down and say to me that she was mad that I had walked too close to her and bumped her head. I thanked her for telling me, apologized, and said that her words helped me to know what I did to hurt her, and showed me how to avoid hurting her in the future. If she had just screamed, I wouldn’t have this knowledge, and the likelihood of it happening again was greater than it was now.
As adults, there are ways in which we still haven’t learned to use our words to express our feelings or to ask for what we want. While most of us have learned not to bite, scream, push, or grab, we’ve developed more “civilized” ways to bypass the use of language that authentically communicates our feelings or desire. We may not scream like wild animals anymore, but we may angrily berate our partners without giving them a chance to respond. We may not bite, but instead rely on vindictive behavior such as the silent treatment or flirtation with someone else to purposely hurt our partner’s feelings. Instead of grabbing, we might just take something we want without asking first, because it is easier to apologize later than it is to ask permission.
All of us have reached adulthood with some gaps in our emotional education, and when we behave like toddlers, it only means that we have something to learn. It is scary to learn to use words for the things that we’re afraid to express. It is difficult to change a lifelong habit, but it is worth the effort. For my daughter, learning to use words enables her to address specific things that hurt her and upset her, and this reduces the odds of her experiencing future pain. Words do the same thing for the adult who relies on pain-inflicting behavior rather than expressing their feelings. The child who asks for a hug might not get one at first, but is also not going to be met with the screams and pushes that come when she grabs and tackles the person she wants to hug. When we learn to use our words rather than rely on animal behavior, our relationships lose a lot of painful drama and chaotic noise. This clears the way for exciting communication and deep enjoyment of each other.