Why Isn’t My Child Talking?


Photo Courtesy flickr/Ian Soper

Why isn’t my child talking?

I get asked this question a lot as a speech therapist. Sometimes the answer is easy and sometimes the answer is complex. Some children have language delays which impede their ability to talk, but other children have the ability to communicate but don’t or won’t do so.

Sometimes the actions of others lead to a child not talking.

It’s easy to say “just make your child talk,” but it can be a lot more complicated than that. When family members interpret a child’s needs without the child needing to communicate, they often won’t. If your child seems unwilling to talk, take a closer look at the behavior of the people that your child interacts with on a regular basis. Are there older siblings in the house who do things for the child without waiting for the child to ask? What about grandparents? Do they suggest your child can “take the easy way out” through their own actions, if not their words?

If a child isn’t talking, the issue can be complex; the entire family and all caregivers need to be on board and may need to change their behaviors. If a child never needs to communicate, then they won’t learn how to communicate. Why should they ask for juice when they know they’re going to get it eventually? Older siblings are often the source of the problem because they don’t have the life experience of the parents, and they want to be helpful and make sure that their baby brother or sister is happy and has what they need… even if it means the child never has to speak.

What To Do About It

Pick a few of your child’s favorite items and start making him request them. His manner of doing so may look different depending on your child’s level of communication ability.

  • If they are not gesturing or talking, start by getting them to point to what they want. If they don’t point, use hand over hand assistance to help them point to the item.
  • If they are pointing or gesturing, get them to both vocalize and point. The vocalization does not necessarily need to sound like the actual word.
  • If your child is vocalizing, try to get them to say the sound the item starts with. For example, if they want a ball, they should say, “bah!”
  • If they are able to say full words, then they should say the word of the item they want.
  • If they are able to say multiple words, encourage them to ask for items using short sentences.
  • Sign language is another tool that you can use; hand over hand assistance with signing is fine if needed.

Of course you can give them a model and do hand over hand to help get them started, but be prepared for your child not to be happy. You are changing the rules on them and they are not going to understand why everything is suddenly very different – it’s hard. You don’t want to make your child cry because they want/need something but you also want them to communicate.

Of course, there are going to be times when this isn’t going to work. If your child is tired, hungry, or in the middle of melt down, you may decide it’s not a good time to work on getting them to communicate. However, if they are always melting down whenever you try to get them to tell you something, then you might have a bigger problem, and that’s when you should seek additional help from a speech therapist.

Jessie Nelson Willis, M.Ed., CCC-SLP

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