This week we continue with our series on stumbling blocks that parents come across when trying to play with their children, and how to move past them. Today we will focus on the third functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 3) which is purposeful, two-way communication, or emotional interactions. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully you will find some helpful suggestions here.
DISCLAIMER: These are general suggestions and guidelines. Context is important and can impact how to handle a stumbling block. Children can also exhibit certain behaviours at home or with you that differ from those at school or in other settings with others. Please contact a professional for specific recommendations for your own child.
FEDC 3 is all about getting a good rhythm of non-verbal, affective gesturing and emotional signalling between you and your child. You want to be sending a communication, receiving a communication back, responding to it, and see the child responding back. These are called circles of communication and this capacity begins in a neurotypical child around the age of four to ten months old.
Today’s blog post photo of our son shows a shared moment of purposeful emotional interaction with his great aunt. He is gesturing (hands up while saying “Yay!“) and has eye contact that is a shared emotional communication between them around something of interest to him, a birthday celebration (hers).
Children with developmental differences can have challenges sustaining these communication circles, only having brief interactions and then going back to what they were doing. If they do have interactions with others, the child will mostly respond to caregivers rather than initiate the interaction.
At this capacity, as a result of missing out on using emotional signalling and eye contact, a child might hit or scream to get what they want because they find it difficult to express their needs without screaming or crying. Thus, their behaviour may be more impulsive and unpredictable.
In regulated play while engaging, child loses temper quickly and expresses his/her needs by screaming, crying, or hitting
When a child is unable to read the emotional signalling and gesturing in another person, (s)he misses out on all of the non-verbal cues that can guide behaviour. A child who struggles with the back-and-forth circles of communication hasn’t yet developed the capacity to co-regulate and instead can lash out when (s)he doesn’t get what (s)he wants.
Here, we have to work on strengthening the earlier capacity of engagement by making it more robust using a lot of affect, fewer words, gesturing and facial expression. When the child is motivated and interested, engaging with you, and you pull the child into an interaction with these non-verbal techniques, the child is learning about emotional signalling because (s)he is emotionally involved.
This is why it is so important to find out what is emotionally meaningful to the child and follow their lead into that emotional window of interest.
- As soon as the child gets upset hitting, kicking, or screaming, you have dropped back down to FEDC 1, the first functional emotional developmental capacity and need to refer to the techniques described in our co-regulation blog to help the child calm down.
- Many parents immediately get reactive when their child loses his/her temper, but the best thing to do is to stay calm and be very objectively observant of what is happening; mirror back what you see to the child with empathy by showing a facial expression of understanding, a sad face, a nod, and/or saying “I see you are very upset. It’s so hard“, etc.
- Accept that your child is upset and distressed and let it be ok; everyone is entitled to his or her feelings.
- Avoid ‘teaching the child a lesson’ or explaining why the child need not be upset; instead, focus only on the fact that you are supporting the child who is very upset and that you empathize and acknowledge that (s)he is upset.
- Ideally, sit with the child patiently until the child works through being upset with the body language that you are there, accepting of his/her emotions, and are there with him/her until (s)he works through it with your support; don’t rush the child through his/her emotions.
- If the child is harming you, him/herself, or someone else, you may have to simply hold him or her tightly and calming, soothing him or her with empathy and acceptance or re-direct the kicking and hitting to a pillow, a mat, or a safe-zone where (s)he can ram into soft foam until the frustration passes.
Child engages and relates with you but cannot sustain an interaction with you
There could be many reasons why the child has challenges with the interaction. One reason could be that the child’s sensory issues interfere, so we want to keep that individual or sensory profile in mind.
- We want to scaffold for the child to make it easier for them to interact. We can do this by strengthening the basic engagement with affect and non-verbal communication such as gestures and facial expression. Especially where the child is verbal, we need to use less words and make it more about the non-verbal communication to get the engagement and interactions more robust.
- EXAMPLE: Our son might initiate an interaction with me by telling me, “Train was on the track”. I could respond verbally, but to get a more robust engagement and interaction I could open my eyes wider and nod, say “Oh!” with enthusiasm then eagerly ask, “and…?” or I could look puzzled and gesture with shrugged shoulders and hands out as if to say “I don’t know” or “Where?” while asking “Going fast or slow?” (minimal language). Both of these tell the child I am waiting for a response.
- With children who have sensory challenges, we can often strengthen the engagement by activating more of their sensory systems. This means getting the child to move around more, using more of his/her body and for you to use your body as well in play. The more his whole body is engaged, the stronger the engagement (FEDC 2) and the more ready (s)he is for interaction/back-and-forth communication (FEDC 3).
- EXAMPLE: In our train example, my son might answer “slow!” and I could move like a train very slowly, peddling my arms while making a “chugga chugga” train sound and ask “Like this?!” This will bring the thought out of his head into the present moment and into 3-Dimensional space in front of him (the visual-spatial plane). I can request “show Mama!” and he might move with me which will activate his vestibular system, or we might push against the wall activating his proprioceptive system.
- We really want to be following the child’s lead doing something that interests the child and gets his/her ‘gleam in the eye’, that is, we see his/her face light up with pleasure; ideally you are the object of interest so you do what you have to do to be funny, or whatever your child enjoys.
- EXAMPLE: “Peek-a-boo” is usually a hit with most children. You can cater it to your child’s particular style. You might hide under a sheet as you crawl towards him/her teasing “I’m…coming…to…you…” in a playful voice and then playfully pop out of the sheet with a big smile. Next, the child might try to cover you up again, or even take a turn him/herself, then you have some circles of communication starting.
Child responds to interactions from you, but doesn’t initiate interactions
Sometimes it might feel like such hard work because your child never seems to initiate any interaction and only responds to you. The initiation will come when the earlier levels are strengthened. Continue to work on the lower functional emotional developmental capacities of regulating (FEDC 1) and engagement (FEDC 2) by encouraging warm, affective, comforting interactions with your child around what they are motivated by. The more robust these early capacities become, the more likely your child will start initiating interactions with you.
- Use high affect and gesturing with facial expressions and body language to strengthen the engagement.
- Pull the child into engagement and interaction by activating more sensory systems through body play and using your own body as a tool by making a tunnel with your legs apart, moving closer and further away playfully, hiding, moving, etc.
- Bring the engagement into the 3-dimensional space by acting out what you are doing for the child to see.
- Slow down the interaction and stretch out each step; for example, my husband will wrap our son up in the blankets on the bed and then he’ll take a turn; he can slow it down by asking “Should I go fast or slow?” and then say “Ok! 1…2…3… here…I…go!” instead of just rolling right away.
STRENGTHENING ENGAGEMENT AT FEDC 2 TO PROMOTE FOSTERING INTERACTION AT FEDC 3:
- Tailor your interaction to your child’s sensory profile; for over-reactive or excitable children we want to slow the pace down and use a quiet voice with excitement in your expression; with a child who is very sluggish and hard to engage, you will want to ramp up your energy to capture his/her interest and attention to keep the interaction going.
- Keep using playful obstruction so the child has no choice but to interact. If the child engages but then goes right back to his/her favourite toy, you move the toy playfully behind you; they try to get it and you move it playfully on your head; with each pursuit from the child you are getting more interaction and moving the body around.
- Remember to always keep it playful and not to use physical force in taking the toy out of the child’s hand, for instance. This is about having fun for the child; we are assuming that the child wants to interact with you more than the toy but just doesn’t know how. You are helping with that by making a game out of it.
- Aim for the shared moments where you and your child look at each other in understanding after you show them that you have joined them in their world. For example, our son was so motivated to decorate our first Christmas tree that each time we put up a decoration I could give him that look of “We did it!” without saying anything and see the delight and pride on his face as he smiled back at me. That is a non-verbal emotional signal of communication.
Child repeats everything you say even if it’s not meaningful or repeats scripted words or phrases over and over
Dr. Greenspan uses an example of a child who repeats “I WANT A COOKIE! I WANT A COOKIE!” By responding using high affect and asking “Oh! Which one? This one or this one?!“, the child has to think more. You can gesture and show them by emphatically sticking one out as you say “This one?” then pull it back and stick the other one out to ask “or this one?“
Instead of focusing on the child’s words, bring it to life and make it interactive with play materials to enact out what (s)he is scripting; for instance, our son repeats the phrase “James fell in the water“, recalling a scene from Thomas and Friends. I could get a blue towel and exclaim “Wait! Let me get the water!…was it a little puddle or a big lake?” then put the small or large blue towel on the ground and physically fall on to it to make it interactive.
If the child doesn’t respond or participate, perhaps it is not interesting to them or it is too challenging for them to respond, developmentally, or due to sensory issues. Don’t give up. Keep at it with another interest of theirs, being interactive and playful using high affect, minimal language, gestures and facial expressions to pull the child in to an interaction.
You could also use the “Wait? I thought it was ____?” when they recite a repeated script. For instance, when my son says “James fell in the water.” I could respond by saying, “Wait? I thought it was Percy!” which will make them think and hopefully respond. You will come to learn what kind of affect your child is enticed by. Our son is drawn in by sound effects and very expressive exciting statements such as “WHAT is THAT?!” or simply a big gasp with a surprised expression on my face.
- Another example Dr. Greenspan used was the child who will repeat “Want to go outside!” so you bring the child to the door and say with high affect “Out?! Or in?!” Then if you see they really want to go outside you can repeat, “Out? Out? OUT? Or in?” while gesturing the ‘out’ with high affect to help the child connect the purpose of the word with the action of walking out the door.
Hopefully this blog helped you solidify your understanding of promoting regulation, engagement and back-and-forth chains of communication with your child. By staying ‘in it’ with your child, using high affect and pleasurable experiences–even being a playful pest to keep your child’s attention if you have to–you can support the child in developing these early capacities.
Other developmental and even some behavioural interventions are successful at supporting children with developmental differences to reach FEDC 3, but DIR/Floortime can help children move beyond this capacity from the concrete world into the abstract. Next week we will focus on stumbling blocks at FEDC 4: complex communication and shared problem solving.
Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through play!