Bob Dylan, Infant and Child Development and the Language of Feelings

Bob Dylan’s line from his song “Tangled Up In Blue” sums up beautifully much of infant and child development, particularly the problems some parents experience as their infant transitions into toddlerhood and begins to talk. Babies and their parents do have the same feelings, but a very different point of view – parents have language, and this changes everything!

All human beings are born with the same built-in feelings. The best model we have currently suggests about nine such feelings (previous posts describe this in detail). These are interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to toxic tastes) and dissmell (a reaction to toxic odors). The parents have words and language for the feelings — but the infant does not! How does she express and communicate her feelings? Through her facial expressions and gestures and the noises she makes! So how do the parents know what her baby is feeling? The parents translate — they translate from the facial expressions, gestures, and noises to the feelings! The key is translation.

So what happens when language appears between about 1 and 3 years of age? Daniel Stern calls language a double-edged sword: it can distort as well as aid communication, especially in the world of feelings. The toddler’s early language tends to be quite limited and primitive, and it is this transition to language which can cause things to go awry.

Say a 1-year-old girl drops her toy car from her highchair – she points, makes noises, and, with too much delay, begins to whimper or get red in the face and squalls. The feelings? Increasing distress and anger. Most parents will understand these feelings, be reassuring, and pick up the car.

Now, let’s fast-forward a year or two – the same girl, highchair, and car. The car falls. The girl is patient, but then begins to get upset … “Car, car!” she calls out. With too much delay, the voice gets more strident: “Car down!” And, finally, she cries out to the too-slowing-moving parent: “I no like you! I hate you!” The parent may feel assaulted and lash back: “Don’t talk like that … we don’t use those words here!”

What has happened? The feelings at one year and three years are the same: the little girl is feeling distress and anger when her car falls and she can’t get it back. But the same parent who could understand the feelings of the younger girl now is thrown off by the words of the older gir — even though the feelings are the same. The answer? Again, translation — but this time into the feelings from the words!

It’s the feelings which are most important. Why? Because it is feelings which lead to actions. Understand your child’s feelings and you will understand your child. Translate your child’s expression — or words — back into the feelings. Label these feelings with your child: interest, enjoyment, distress, fear, and so on. Use the language of feelings.

Dylan got it right. We do feel the same – we may just be starting from a different point of view. The solution is easy – just translate into feelings!