Belsize Park pyschotherapist reaches out to wordless children

Jeanne Magagna has written on a book on the art of communicating with silent children

How does one communicate with a child who won’t speak? Some might strive to draw the words out of the child; others might give up and let the child alone. But Dr Jeanne Magagna encourages people to employ psychotherapy and to look for a child’s methods of interaction without words.

“The idea (among psychotherapists used to be) that you had to be well enough physically to have psychotherapy,” Magagna says, “And I said, ‘Why would these children want to live unless they had some psychological thinking to give them some hope that life was worth living and understand why they didn’t feel it was worth living?’”

Magagna, who worked as head of psychotherapy services at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children for more than 20 years, recently edited The Silent Child: Communication Without Words, a compilation of psychotherapists’ experiences working with children who either are not yet able to speak or have elected not to speak. She specialises in working with children over time to give them the support they need to help them speak.

“To give up speaking,” Dr Magagna says, “I guess something’s been so frustrating or traumatic that one’s tried to shut one’s eyes, shut one’s mouth and pull away from life.

“I often tell these young people stories about turtles and snails going into (their safe) place for protection because the world doesn’t feel the right place to be in.”

Dr Magagna’s book is not only helpful to those who have children who don’t speak but is also of general interest to all new parents in its discussion of baby observation.

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“I had this idea,” Dr Magagna said, “That if one had parents’ groups in nursery and helped parents to learn about the nonverbal communication of their children through play, that they would understand a whole lot more about their children…

“I had this other idea in terms of preventative health that if one works on the communication that babies have in their first year of life through learning baby observation… one will find the baby much more interesting in the first year of life.”

Another point of interest for parents, according to Dr Magagna, is in the chapter when a mother details her experience about being a part of the child’s recovery.

“(This section) shows how professionals can involve parents in the recovery process from anorexia, which is very common in (Hampstead)...” Dr Magagna says. “And it shows how not just therapy, but involving the parents is such a crucial step in repairing the bridge to a child who stops eating and speaking.”

Dr Magagna stresses the importance of involving parents in therapy in order to help the child get better.

“Mending the bridge to the parents is essential for any child not speaking, not eating, or giving up life,” Dr Magagna says, “Because a lot of people offer individual work and they don’t actually do the work with the parents and the child or the parents to help them with the relationship to the child.

“… Repair the bridge to the parents; don’t just do teaching, i.e. speech therapy, language classes in school. Those help but they don’t repair the broken link.”

Magagna says that, while parents may be terrified and nurses may feel paralyzed by a child who rejects them and will not speak, there are ways of reading children’s nonverbal gestures which let people know they are listening.

“… You think of infant observation and mothers with babies …And mothers are talking with their babies for one year before they say one word, so we all learned to do observing nonverbal gestures, and realize that it’s not really silence, it’s communication without words.”

The book’s introduction gives an idea of the overarching theme: listening in every sense of the word.

“All we need to do is ‘listen,’” Dr Magagna reads from the book, “Listen not only with our ears….. but also with our eyes….. our knowledge….. our experience….. our instincts….. our hearts….. and, above all, we should listen to the sound of silence!”

The Silent Child: Communication Without Words by Jeanne Magagna is published by Karnac, �39.99