I still remember the time my son said his first word. We were in the kitchen. He looked up over the counter, saw some fruit, and said “ap-ple.” I was stunned, then joyful—and surprisingly oblivious, at that moment, to the enormous and inspiring power that had been unleashed.

A Leap In Development

Language represents a huge developmental leap. Think of all the things we can accomplish with our words and language. We can enhance relationships with our children. We can share feelings and ideas. We can communicate complex thoughts and abstractions. We can describe physical sensations, and music, and visual forms and art. We can tell jokes, share problems, discuss our sadness, sing songs, talk about likes and dislikes, tell people we love them or are angry at them. Our sophisticated as well as basic feelings and most of our complex thoughts can be put into language.

“Ah, this is getting so much easier,” you may think. And in some ways this makes sense. Words are a great tool. But like all tools they can be used to build things up or tear them down. As children begin to talk, these words can seem as much like a sledgehammer as anything else. And as Daniel Stern, M.D., the famous infant researcher, noted: Language is a double-edged sword—it can distort as well as enhance.

Many months after my son Campbell first said “apple,” he’d expanded his vocabulary to include somewhat more hefty words, such as “No” and “I no like you!” I confess at that point I may have felt a little less joyous. But a toddler’s growing use of language can be a tremendous benefit to psychological development and tension-regulation.

Sometimes, it just takes some getting used to before you can understand what your child is really trying to say. As we discuss in more detail later, the single most effective tool at your disposal to help you hear, understand, and respond to your child’s verbal expressions of the feelings is translation—the back and forth process of changing (or translating) words back into feelings and feelings into words.

Speaking the Words

As children grow up—at around 2—they change how they give life to their feelings. The facial expressions they used so actively as infants, while still there, are joined by early words.

Once a child begins to talk, the task of helping a child learn to use words to appropriately express feelings—the whole gamut from joy to rage—can bring many and immediate rewards. Anny Katan was a well-known child psychoanalyst who knew the Freud family and migrated to Cleveland after the war. She founded a therapeutic preschool in 1950, now the Hanna Perkins School. There she developed the new technique of treating troubled preschoolers by way of the parents. She commented eloquently on the benefits of encouraging word use and talking in a child: Verbalization, she said, increases the possibility of distinguishing between fantasies and reality. Verbalization leads to the integrating process, which in turn results in reality testing. If the child would verbalize his feelings, he can learn to delay action (such as a tantrum). The idea is “words, not actions.” This nicely sums up the benefit of encouraging words.

An Example: Ben at 1 Year Old
Here’s an example of the difference between pre-words and after-words. Ben, a year old, and his mother are in the kitchen. Ben is in his highchair playing with a little toy car and having a snack. The car falls off and onto the floor. Ben begins to get distressed (mouth turned down, eyebrows arched). Mom can’t get to the car right away and says: “Hold on, Ben, I’ll get your car in a sec.” Ben relaxes a bit, he knows he has been understood and he looks forward to seeing the results. He’s really interested in the car, and when his mom takes a few seconds too long (in his view of things) to retrieve the car for him, his distress returns full blast. Then his distress morphs into anger. His face turns red and he lets out a cry of despair. Mother hears this, puts down the pan she’s working on, and says: “Okay, okay, I get it…here, Ben, here’s the car,” as she picks it up and hands it to him. Ben takes the car, smiles, and goes “vroom, vroom” as he runs it across his highchair table.

Ben at 2 Years Old
Now…take a similar scenario a year later. Ben, 2 years old, is in the highchair, playing with a car. It falls on the floor. “Car, car, car down,” he says, still asking for a response. Mom hears these words as a bit demanding but maintains her cool: “Just a second, honey, I’ve got my hands full.” Ben brightens at her voice but then, when some time goes by, he gets more distressed: “Car, car!” he yells. Mom, unconsciously reacting to the verbal response as she might to anyone who was talking AT her, says, “Hold on, I’ll be there, just wait a minute.” But to Ben, yelling “car, car” is just like letting out a cry of distress. If that is not responded to as it was when he was preverbal, he gets even more frustrated and angry. He expresses his distress by trotting out the limited vocabulary he has at his disposal: “No, no! I no like you…I hate you!”

This can be devastating to a parent. The sweet, needy, tender infant has turned into a nasty monster! These words may seem to be much more of a personal attack than the preverbal wailing that Ben’s mom (and all parents) was used to. So, in our example, Ben’s Mom feels put upon and assaulted. She doesn’t like what she is hearing in words. She doesn’t like the word “hate.” She snaps at him: “Ben, stop it! We don’t talk like that in this house.” And the battle is joined. You can fill in the blanks: Ben throws his food on the floor. Mom gets angry. Ben yells and says more. A timeout is declared.

What happened? As the example of Ben and his mother illustrates, language brings with a complex set of reactions on the part of parent and child. On the plus side, language ushers in many positive results: Words give a child a way to enhance communication and to increase his or her capacity for understanding and regulating feeling. When a word is put to a feeling, one gains power over that feeling; there is an increasing ability to examine and mold it; to share or modify it; to enjoy it or to let it go. But there is also the opportunity for distortion and miscommunication which can lead to conflict. Language has become a double-edged sword.

With the non-verbal Ben, his mother was able to recognize the distress and anger, and she fixed what had triggered those feelings by picking up the car. Ben’s expression of his distress and anger did not throw her off. However, when Ben became verbal, using words such as “no like” and “hate,” his mother lost her bearings. She had trouble understanding the Ben was expressing exactly the same feelings as before: distress and anger. But when these feelings were put roughly into words, language itself threw a monkey wrench into their communication.