Emotional Intelligence and Creating a Richer Language

Photography: Jenna Young Photography

By Becky Cashman. This is the second of two articles on Baby Sign – first article found HERE

There is great power in using sign language to express emotions. Imagine using signs to encourage understanding and acceptance of the full range of emotions of being human.

It makes sense. Emotions are difficult to put into words, not just for pre-verbal toddlers, but for kids, teens and yes, adults too.

I so loved Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn’s book Baby Signs, that I also purchased and absorbed Baby Minds and Baby Hearts.

It was Baby Hearts that I mark as my first conscious step into what is now called EQ, emotional intelligence. I felt the truth in every cell of my body, providing a language of emotion was a pathway to wellness. As important as the food I chose to prepare for my child, I took the language of emotion, quite literally, to heart.

I created a full range of signs to cover a full range of emotions: love, safe, scared, quiet, content, frustrated, angry, fighting, comfort, sorry, happy, sad and even over-stimulated. Helena actually learned to say “over stimulated” when she was still 2 years old. I guess I used that sign fairly frequently. I often followed it with, “I’m out of words”, and we’d get quiet for a few minutes.

I also included some context signs to help the conversation: look, listen, show me, tell me again, where, and the shrugged shoulders for I don’t know. This gave us a way to have a conversation around an emotion.

It is no wonder a pre-verbal toddler will throw a tantrum of frustration. There’s the feeling of frustration compounded by the feeling that he can’t say he’s frustrated compounded by the feeling that he REALLY wants mum to know AND hold him safe through this emotion.

Using a sign for frustration takes all the compounding out of feeling frustrated.

If you can say it, be understood and acknowledged, you are three steps toward the frustration flowing on, by leaving you and your child wiser and undamaged by the experience.

You get a chance to bypass or mitigate your child’s frustration turning into your very own frustration as you attempt to deal with a now irrational child.  Communication becomes a safety net for both of you. (Just to set the record straight, these signs do not stop tantrums. If anything, I think signs amplify feeling, making them clean, clear AND fierce. It also allows them to pass more quickly, establishing a new stasis, without leaving a residue of hurt feelings.)

Being able to say “I feel ______” is the beginning of emotional intelligence. Giving your child the tools to say that before words are able to form is a gift. It normalizes the full spectrum of feeling, so that a child learns a love and compassion for self in the face of powerful and sometimes scary feelings. It also helps to highlight the feelings of wellness that might get missed for lack of acknowledgment. It is just as important to bring these to the conversation as the bursts of unhappy.

Signs that Last
As a family, the emotional signs that we created when the children were very small have lasted the longest. At current ages 9 and nearly 13, while the signs don’t show up regularly, they still make occasional, surprising and immediately understood appearances.

Here are the signs that still frequent our house. Some signs I haven’t seen for months, then they bubble up again. Angry gets a regular workout, and some signs like Love, get used every day.

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