Reading between the lines: Children’s miscues and how to make sense of them

Julia Donaldson and Lindsay Rautman
Friday, June 4, 2021

Has someone ever asked you “how are you today?” and you’ve replied “fine, thanks” with a big smile, even though your day has been rubbish and you’re feeling anything but fine?

Did you know that this kind of communication is sometimes known as a miscue? A ‘cue’ is when we share directly with others how we feel inside, but a miscue is when we outwardly communicate something different to how we feel inside.

There are lots of reasons why we might miscue a need: possibly you don’t know the person well enough to trust them with your feelings; or maybe you prefer not to dwell on difficult feelings because it’s so uncomfortable. As an adult, you’ve likely learned many different coping strategies.

Children, even very little children, can miscue too. Like adults, what they communicate to the outside world might appear quite different from the feeling inside. Unlike adults, little children need their important adults to help them understand, process and manage feelings. If a child is miscuing their emotional need, then it’s harder for adults to know what the child is feeling and what help they might need.

It’s important that those of us working with babies, young children and their families know how to spot miscues ourselves, and how to help caregivers when a child isn’t clearly communicating how they’re feeling.

Why would little children miscue?

Like other forms of communication, miscuing is learned. It happens when a child receives a repeated message from their caregiver not to show a particular need. Usually this process is an unconscious one, perhaps something the caregiver learned themselves when they were little. For example, Sam is three and his daddy tells him that big boys don’t cry. Sam sometimes gets big sad feelings, but because big boys don’t cry, he hits things instead to make the sad feelings go away so no one sees that he wants to cry.

Sometimes children learn to miscue because their caregivers are experiencing extreme stress or distress or other overwhelming issues themselves, and they are not able to connect with and support their children’s emotional needs. Sarah’s mummy and daddy argue a lot. They shout and sometimes mummy cries. This is very scary for Sarah. When it’s all over, mummy and daddy act like nothing happened. No one talks about the scary shouting. They both smile at Sarah and act like everything is normal. Sarah still feels scared inside but she knows that mummy and daddy want her to smile too.

What helpful advice is there for caregivers of children who don’t clearly communicate their feelings, and for those of us working with families?

  • Remember, little children often communicate through their behaviours as much as through facial expressions or words. Sometimes it can take a bit of time to tune in and learn a child’s emotional language. For example, some children who miscue when they experience stress might become very quiet and still, while another might find their bodies full of nervous energy and struggle to settle.

  • Don’t be scared to name if you think a child might feel different inside to how they appear on the outside. Knowing an important grownup recognises their feeling inside can help a child feel seen and understood and not alone. Using “Wondering” can help. “I see that you are kicking your toy, but I wonder if you are really feeling quite sad right now”.

  • It’s okay if you have to address the miscuing behaviour: “It’s not okay to hit but I can see that you are having some big feelings right now”.

  • Offer reassurance: “we all have lots of different feelings. All feelings are okay…I wonder if you are feeling sad/scared/angry… I’m here to help you with what you are feeling.”

  • Suggest regulating activities to parents you work with that will create opportunities for connection. This might be different for each child; sharing a cuddle, reading a story or maybe even doing some silly dancing together!

Why is it important that children get help with their feelings?

Without help, some feelings will continue to feel scary and overwhelming. Think about what might happen if Sam and Sarah keep their sad and scared feelings inside as they grow up. If Sam continues to show angry and aggressive behaviours when he feels sad or Sarah smiles and behaves like things are normal when she’s in a situation that is scary or not safe, this can affect their relationships with others and their own emotional wellbeing.

The good news is that if we can tune in to when young children are using miscues and help them with their underlying feelings, we can help set them on the path for healthier emotional development and relationships.

Want to learn more about children’s development?

Sign up for our Trauma and child brain development training. Learn about the impact of negative experiences early in life and how we can support healthy social and emotional development. Find out more on the NSPCC Learning website.

Julia Donaldson and Lindsay Rautman are from the NSPCC’s Infant and family team in Glasgow

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