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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

The Power of Silence

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The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company

There has been tremendous interest in the phenomenon of the movie "The Artist." The chatter about "The Artist" in the media expresses a curiosity about how and why a silent film appeals to a contemporary audience. Even "Hugo" is a celebration of the silent screen. Some of this speculation occurred when "Wall-E" and "Up" were released, but inquisitiveness around "The Artist" far exceeds those two films. The movie appears to be a top-tier contender for a Best Picture Academy Award.

Perhaps we consider ourselves such sophisticated users of written and verbal language that it is hard to imagine telling a story without words. Yet "The Artist" obviously has captured hearts (and awards) without an utterance, thus offering the opportunity to consider the power of non-language communication especially when intense human emotions are involved.

Non-language communication has been with us before the language centers in our brain evolved. And although anthropological scholars disagree on the origins of language, they do agree there was a pre-language phase of human existence. The residuals of this pre-language stage are with us today and enable our ability to communicate without words. Add to this increasing knowledge about brain science and how brain cells are active during human interaction, the resulting valuable insights offer clues to help separating parents manage emotionally charged situations.

The impact of non-language communication is an important part of the Kids' Turn program for separating parents and their children. In order to better prepare our workshop staff to teach these ideas, our staff trainings include information on the impact of silent communication. To demonstrate, we show a clip from Charlie Chaplin's silent movie "The Kid." The story shows The Tramp becoming a foster parent to a street urchin (Jackie Coogan) until the welfare authorities show up to take the child away. (You can view a three-minute clip, titled "Leave The Kid," here.)

It is the most heartbreaking experience to see the child wrenched away from his daddy -- all of this portrayed without talking and underscored by music. Although the story itself is a variation on separation, the message is clear -- children and parents alike agonize at the thought of being apart from one another. It is a powerful lesson that would, I imagine, sway the thinking of any parent considering alienating their child from the other parent.

Non-language communication taps in to what makes us human, and encouraging separating parents to tune into these universal truths can help them facilitate a smooth family transition. Here are three ways parents can maximize the power of silence during a split:

1. Set A Good Example For Your Kids: From infancy, children are always watching their parents. Smile at a child and they smile back; walk a toddler into a new experience and they look to their parents to see how to conduct themselves. The strongest anti-smoking message to a teenager is for the parents themselves to not smoke.

When families are reorganizing, children will look to their parents to see how they should respond to this very new, unfamiliar and scary experience. Parents' personal conduct through the family restructuring is the loudest message they will send to their children. If parents are yelling and screaming through the experience, they can expect their children to do the same. Conversely, if the parents are working to modulate their emotions and treat each other respectfully, the children will model that behavior. This particular element has long-term effects as well. Setting a tone of treating others with courtesy even during the worst of times is a lifelong, valuable lesson.

2. Give Yourself (And Your Kids) Time To Cool Off: We all have had occasions when we realize we don't have the words to express ourselves. These circumstances generally are very strong emotional situations. Parental separation is one of the most emotionally charged episodes a family can experience, and when words fail, the result can be crying, hitting, slamming doors, walking out, substance abuse, and so on.

Enlightened separating parents who understand the value of a cooling-off period during extremely turbulent episodes can ease through them effectively. Thanks to the influence of our colleagues at Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence, we teach children and parents the saying, "When life plays tricks, count to six." This simple slogan is designed to help them wait out emotional eruptions until the situation can be talked through. It's okay for parents or children to say: "I can't talk about this right now" or "I'm too upset to talk about it." Take a walk, count to six, fold the laundry, sort the mail or dust the furniture -- any simple activity will do if it helps the flood of emotions diminish.

3. Do What You Say You Will: A person's behavior is the strongest statement that they make. If a split parent tells their children they are important, they must act on that message. Be prompt; keep commitments; put your children first; let your children know they can depend on you; show up when you are supposed to. Kids can detect a phony. Act on your priorities rather than just talking about them.

So during this season of the Academy Awards, pop some popcorn and have a silent movie date with your youngsters. "Wall-E" and "Up" are great for younger children; silent screen comedies are terrific for youth and teens (they'll resist at first, but will appreciate the slapstick humor). Each family member can learn to appreciate the power of silence.