Communication: The Link That Empowers

As a paediatric Speech-Language Therapist, I can attest for the fact that communication does, indeed, empower. And Empowerment is the foundation of a multi-faceted social process that helps people gain control over their own lives by enhancing confidence, ability and overall quality of life.

For the many families that I have the privilege to help support, ‘communication’ IS ‘speech’. When families start the journey from their children being non-verbal towards realizing expression and the power it affords, it is often difficult to convey to parents that ‘communication’ is so much more than just ‘words’. At the start of the journey, parents just long to hear their child utter their ‘first’ words, however, as their children begin to imitate words, parents realize that merely repeating words and phrases do not translate to communication and that words alone are not sufficient. In such cases, children have no idea of the ‘why’ of speaking.

While ‘words’ are fascinating and can be used in various ways, words are useless without the intent to communicate and without the accompanying emotions. For example, we use words to express ourselves when we are happy, when we are sad, when we are angry; songs are made up of more than just lyrics; poems are more than just words on a page. We use communication with friends and we use communication when we feel hostile towards someone. Words can cause a failure to understand, or interpret correctly which can potentially, result in misunderstandings. In contrast, words can also resolve misunderstandings. We use words to educate our children, and we use words to assess how much has been learnt. So, while words are indeed important, words alone do not make up communication because words must convey intent and emotion and this is what leads to empowerment.

Communication goes far beyond words and talking, and it is much more than just having a person’s needs met. Just reflect on the hour you have just experienced before reading this article. What types of communication situations did you experience? Reciprocity? Dialogue? Sharing thoughts? Sharing feelings? Indeed, thoughtful, reciprocal communication which links each of us to the person we are communicating with is essential for developing flexible minds. It is via communication that experiences are shared, ideas presented and thoughts revealed. It is through thoughtful reciprocal communication that we gain different perspectives and expand upon what is known beyond solitary experiences. When one communicates and relates to another, communication impacts directly on initiative and motivation to interact. It is an essential ability for survival in this dynamic world that we live in.

Toddlers below the age of two years of age do not use many words but they certainly do communicate with those around them using vocal elements (intonation of sounds, timing, pacing), gestures, facial expressions, body language, communication intent to communicate their intent based on the different situations that they find themselves in.

Exploring and introducing your child to the world of communication is a wondrous experience, and enhancing the many aspects of communication can be targeted by:

Explore all possibilities - by assessing your child and how s/he communicates for what is desired, you can determine if your child is a visual learner, an auditory learner, and/or a kinaesthetic learner. Provide your child with an enriched environment abundant with lots of material around that allow for experimentation. This is the ideal platform for sharing and communication.

Listen – communication requires a consensual agreement to exchange information. This means, that there has to be a speaker with a real message, as well as, someone who is willing to listen. If you are not listening you are not communicating because you were not involved in the conversation. ‘Active listening’ is the way of listening and responding to the person you are communicating with in a useful manner.

Promote non-verbal communication – we make judgements based on body language all the time (i.e. we make judgements based on body language when we hire, or promote someone; when we ask someone out for a date etc). So, think about what your body language communicates to your child and what your child’s non-verbal communication communicates to you.

Wait - allow plenty of time for your child to understand, and think, about what you are saying.

Quality vs. Quantity – emphasize the quality of communication with your child over the quantity of communication.

Thoughtful Communication – ensure that ‘thought’ comes before speaking to encourage thoughtful communication.

Share experiences – share your emotional reactions during many simple shared experiences with your child. Create opportunities for your child to seek and/or share emotional reactions in return, because effective communication cannot be a one-way street. This is particularly important because emotional reaction is a window into how another feels or thinks about a situation, and in turn, this information helps us to adapt what we are doing to maintain an interaction, keep an interaction on track, improve an interaction, celebrate success and clarify misunderstandings.....have fun.

Slow down – lastly, slow down and BE in the moment. In an era where the brightest thing attracts our attention resulting in what seems like an ongoing battle of elements vying for our conscious attention, being in the moment is not as easy as it sounds. Fundamentally, it means focusing on the ‘here’ and ‘now’, on what is right in front of us. When we do this with our children - noticing, recognizing, becoming aware and communicating about these observations - meaningful communication is possible, it encourages and empowers.

Jennifer Peters-Lee is a Consultant Speech-Language Therapist who has made meaningful communication, her life’s work.

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Speech - language therapist

Jennifer Peters-Lee

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