Home > Uncategorized > How parents and counselors can communicate effectively with young children: Developmental theory as a guide

How parents and counselors can communicate effectively with young children: Developmental theory as a guide

First Psych Nerds Post by Dr. John Calicchia.

As a counselor of young children many parents frequently ask me how to communicate effectively with their children.  Similarly, as a counselor educator students often ask me how does developmental theory inform and guide counseling practice?  These seemingly disparate questions essentially have the same answer: developmental theory is necessary to understand critical stages but, more importantly, what modalities of expression and communication the child is able to use.  In order to effectively communicate with children and to permit developmental theory to guide our practice we must understand the “languages” children speak as they mature. The purpose of this article is to share with the reader a framework for understanding and using developmental theory to speak to children in the nonverbal language they know best: action based play and fantasy.

In order to simplify the multidimensional complexity of human psychological and physical development, theorists have attempted to describe maturational processes in one domain at a time. Students routinely study developmental theorists that have examined cognitive, psychosocial, moral, psychosexual, and interpersonal development to name but a few.  The problem students have with developmental theory is they tend to view only a single domain of the child’s development at a time. As good counselors we seek to view a child from a holistic lens and understand a child’s thoughts, emotions, personality, and worldview concurrently.  If we ask ourselves what commonalities do most or all of the developmental theorists share in their view of children we begin to understand and conceptualize a mega-developmental model to guide our work with children as parents and therapists (for further information on this perspective please read Santostefano & Werner).

If we look at the world of the very young child between birth and two years of age we see a variety of maturational progressions that theorists have described using stages and issues. Where theorists share common ground is that the child experiences all of these developmental issues in the same modality of body based action.  During this early developmental level a child does not have access to language or to play, therefore, they experience and construct meaning of the world through rituals of physical action.  Regardless of the developmental issue being negotiated the child of this age has only one venue from which to engage the world.  In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we don’t need language or even pretend play. We need to physically interact in a nonverbal manner to communicate with the child.  We tend to forget that we experienced the world from our caregivers for two years without using language or play. This nonverbal action-oriented mode of expression in understanding is available throughout one’s lifetime but is dominant during this phase of development.

Around the age of two children are beginning to understand and use language, however, the preferred mode for engaging the world is based in fantasy and pretend play. During this period children are compelled to symbolize and animate as they construct meanings of the world around them. Eventually, children of this age began to use the rich environment of pretend play and fantasy to learn and negotiate developmental challenges. During this phase children still actively make use of the action based mode previously discussed and they also have access to some use of language although this mode does not become fully dominant till the teen years. If you observe children in the two through six age range it is obvious that action and imaginary play are the preferred languages that they “speak”.  In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we don’t need much language. We do however need to recall and use our earliest forms of communication: action and imaginary play.  As with the nonverbal action-oriented mode this “imaginary play” form of expression is available throughout one’s lifetime but is dominant during this phase of development.

Around the age of six, when children are entering first grade, they become more focused on the outer world and are dominated less by play and fantasy themes. At this age children have developed solid language skills and become enamored with industry and production as they advance in school. However, the modes of action and imaginary play are still very active.  Children of this age will rarely sit idly and talk, they still prefer to speak and to communicate while in action and play. In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we need to be able to integrate action, play, and language.

As a parent or counselor we now see the world of the preadolescent child filled with developmental stages that all need to be negotiated through action, imaginary play, and language.  Children have little difficulty speaking these three languages because they are developmentally pre-wired to do so.  In my experience it is often adults that have been so long dominated by the language mode they forget their abilities to communicate in other ways.  Parents and novice counselors of young children often don’t realize that their dominant use of language is not effective in communicating with young children.  Children I have worked with often express their understanding of the adult world as being filled with language they do not understand.  Often children will draw pictures or play to show that adults are speaking to them in a language they do not understand.  Do you remember the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon? Do you remember the voice with unintelligible fast-paced droning language? Children I have worked with have drawn pictures of adults with “big mouths” that are perceived in the same way.  Is it any wonder that I frequently hear from parents “I don’t understand… it seems as if they’re not listening to me or don’t understand what I am saying”. Could it be that we are not speaking to children in a language they can understand.  I frequently tell my students that using only language, without action/play, to speak to a child would be akin to counseling an adult using a foreign language they did not understand.  Let us turn to a brief commonsense strategy that counselors and parents can use to effectively communicate with young children.

First, when you’re attempting to communicate with a child don’t focus on language, in fact, don’t say anything. Observe what the child is doing by attending to their actions and imaginary play without speaking. (As a guideline I often tell beginning counselors to observe themselves on tape and limit themselves to the same number and type of words the child is using.  The tapes usually reveal the adult counselor using far too much language and not enough action and play.) As you observe the child you should easily be able to determine what developmental modes of expression and themes a child prefers using.  Second, using body based actions and imaginary play, naturally integrate the issues you wish to convey to the child without resorting to language or rupturing the child’s interactive play.  Let me share with you an example from a personal rather than clinical perspective that illustrates these two points.

I recall when my firstborn daughter was two and 1/2 years old and, as parents, my wife and I were attempting to persuade her to relinquish her pacifier. We tried “speaking” to our daughter about the various reasons why a big girl should not use a pacifier.  Despite our well-intentioned and creative verbal attempts we were unsuccessful and became frustrated.  As I thought of the situation from the perspective of a professional counselor I felt foolish.  I also felt that my daughter was ”tuning me out” since I had not the courtesy to speak to her in a language she understood. The next day I sat down for five minutes and just watched my daughter play with her animal farm. She was taking the farm animals and other assorted toys, showing them the way home, and making them a proper bed on the farm.  After my daughter understood that I was not going to say anything (much to her relief I might add) she invited me to play with one of the farm animals. We had fun and I also felt connected with my daughter. However, I still needed to promote my agenda for discontinuing with the pacifier but now I had a new modality to communicate my concerns.  Rather than saying a word, I looked for a way to use the play farm characters and the theme of taking them to bed.  A small brown Beaver with large front teeth grabbed my attention.  I aptly named him “Bucktooth Beaver” and grabbed a play pacifier from a doll’s crib.  We made a bed for him on the farm and I put him to bed while imploring “Bucktooth” to give up his binki (pacifier) like a big Beaver should.  Soon Bucktooth began spitting out his binki before he went to bed since it was bad for such beautiful teeth.  Needless to say, my daughter thought this was hilarious and entertaining.  She recruited me daily up to her farm to play “Bucktoothed Beaver”.  Not surprisingly, after a week my daughter relinquished her pacifier noting that it was bad for her teeth.  In retrospect, had I noted her developmental need for play early on I would have had much better success and less stress trying to rid her of the pacifier habit.

In summary, developmental theory not only informs us of stages, issues, and needs, but of the child’s ability and preference to communicate in a modality other than language.  Children negotiate developmental issues through action, imaginary play, and language.  Each child’s unique makeup determines the balance and preference for these modalities since development is inescapable and all children will need to act, play, and speak as they construct meaning of their world.


Dr. John A. Calicchia began at Bridgewater in 1993 in the Department of Counselor Education where he served as a faculty member, Graduate Program Coordinator and Department Chair before joining the Psychology Department in the Fall of 2007. He has taught a variety of courses including applied pre-adolescent counseling, research methods, and legal and ethical issues. Over the past 20 years, his research and clinical practice have focused mainly on children and adolescence and Dr. Calicchia has an eclectic array of peer-reviewed articles, presentations, and a co-authored book. Dr. Calicchia is a Licensed Psychologist/Health Service Provider in the state of Massachusetts and has special training in child and adolescent psychology. He completed his pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship in clinical child psychology at McLean Hospital and served as a Child & Adolescent Psychologist at McLean Hospital & Harvard Medical School.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Russell Kennard
    January 31, 2012 at 12:23 am

    It’s been 5 years since I did Developmental Psych. This was a quick and practical refresher.
    Kind Regards, Russell

  2. Russell Kennard
    January 31, 2012 at 12:25 am

    That should have been 35 years since I did Dev. Psych.

  3. February 1, 2012 at 7:16 am

    SUPER post! Some of these ideas relate directly to working with ADDers too. We ALL prefer our own languages, don’t we?

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

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