To parents looking for ways to handle their children’s behavior problems, it can seem like no matter how many times they tell their child to “stop that” or “settle down” or “come here,” their words are not heard. Trying to manage behavior can be befuddling and frustrating when it feels like your child isn’t listening to what you say. For situations like this, our occupational therapists often use “non-verbal” or “decreased-verbal” strategies to help manage behavior. According to OT Deedra Weill, when a child is very excited or upset he is not able to process verbal information very well. Rather than continue trying to engage him on a verbal level, she suggests trying a few of these strategies:
Proximity: Where you are in proximity to your child sends a strong signal. If you feel that you are having trouble connecting with words, try getting closer and moving alongside your child; getting down to his or her level. This makes it easier for the child to focus their attention on you in a distracting environment, so that they are better able to pay attention to facial expressions and tone of voice.
Hold That Thought: Speaking of which, facial expressions are an important part of nonverbal communication, but a child who is not attending to you or is distracted may not be able to interpret an expression. Try holding an expression for longer, so that your child has a chance to observe and interpret the expression. It may feel a bit strange to you but giving him an extra moment to process what your face is showing could help him towards understanding what you are trying to communicate.
Simple Statements: This is a strategy that works well when you are trying to help your child deal with an emotional outburst. We tend to use abstract imperatives– “Pay attention,” “calm down,” “stop that” – when it sometimes works better to use simple, declarative statements. When trying to calm a tantrum, this can be as simple as stating what you observe: “You’re angry that your sister took the last puzzle piece.” This helps them put their nonverbal emotions into words, as well as helping them interpret a feeling that they may have been having trouble understanding themselves.