Neck up/ Neck Down Communication

I often explain to parents that a child’s communication has two parts. The most obvious part of his message — the neck up portion– is contained in the words he uses. When a child, speaking from the neck up, says, “I hate my little brother,” we’re often tempted to reply from the neck up: “How can you say that? He adores you!” This type of left-brained interaction focuses exclusively on the content, leaving out the more important — but perhaps encoded — emotions beneath the words, in the neck down or feeling part of his communication.

When our children’s words trouble us, it’s easy to ignore the real message — the feelings that they’re attempting to express through language. When this happens, we end up arguing with them, using logic in an attempt to correct their thinking. They feel misunderstood, and the conversation comes to a screeching halt. We need to avoid being tricked into believing that our youngsters’ words contain their actual message. Our job is to be the translator for our kids, to help them express what they’re feeling (neck down) with words that reflect the truth of what they’re experiencing. “It sounds like you were mad — and maybe a little embarrassed? — when I scolded you for telling your little brother he couldn’t play with you and your buddies.”

Question: My eight-year old daughter says things all the time that she knows aren’t true — like, “I know you love Louie (her little brother) more than me.” Can you explain how I would use the Neck Up/ Neck Down idea with a child who says things that are obviously false?

Suggestion: The key to using the Neck up/ Neck down image is to picture a child’s words as coming from the Neck up, and the feelings that pushed the words out as coming from the Neck down. Another way of thinking about this is to imagine that the content of what she’s saying is a function of the verbal, left side of her brain, while the emotions come more from the feeling, right side of her brain. While it can be tempting to focus on the words a child uses, when we do, we often miss the real message hiding behind the words. It’s as if you’re knocking on the left side of her brain — attempting to engage her with logic and language — when nobody’s home because she’s over in her right brain at the moment.

Rather than getting hung up on what your daughter says, concentrate on discovering what’s going on beneath the surface. “Were you sad when you saw me playing the chase game with Louie, sweetie?” Instead of trying to convince her that her Neck up statements are inaccurate, focus on helping her get in touch with the real meaning behind her words — the Neck down part of her message. The more you do this, the less she’ll be inclined to make dramatic statements. As you’ll see in upcoming chapters, when you avoid getting entangled in debates about what a child is saying, you’ll be better able to address the underlying issue.

Join Susan and a host of top-notch parenting experts for a free online series: Raising Tweens and Teens: Less Drama. More Joy. Speakers include Byron Katie, Dr. Dan Siegel, Alanis Morissette, Michele Borba, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Dr. Lisa Damour, Rosalind Wiseman and many more!

Originally published at on February 16, 2017.

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