One of the great joys of parenting is talking with our kids. We want to know the highs and lows of their day, what’s important to them… their hopes, fears, and opinions.
However, some kids just aren’t that talkative. Others have speech and language delays that make it tough for them to express their thoughts in conversation. Plus, as kids get older, they may not be as interested in spending time with their family and talking about their day. As a parent, that can be a hard pill to swallow!
So how should you talk with your child to get them to answer you? No matter the situation–whether they’re entering their teenage years, have a communication problem, or maybe both–there are some easy things you can do to make conversation easier and more rewarding.
The importance of conversation as children grow
As kids grow up, conversation skills play a role in their development in many different ways.
At first, “conversation” with your child may feel like a one-way street! Parents and caregivers should start talking to their babies from day one, even before they have the words to reply. This helps babies begin to learn and absorb speech and language.
As babies grow, they learn to communicate in order to request what they need, such as a snack or a toy. And as they enter the toddler years, they begin commenting and using longer phrases: “Look at the plane!” or “I like to swing!” These comments give you a peek into what your child is interested in, along with their likes and dislikes.
When children start school, they start talking with a wider variety of people: peers, teachers, friends, coaches, other parents. They begin to form relationships with many different people, which is primarily done through conversation. It’s an important skill that helps us stay connected to others.
As we’ve mentioned, there can be a few reasons your child isn’t talking much to you. They may have a language delay, or it may simply be their age. Let’s look at some tips to help with parent-child conversations in both situations.
How to talk with your child if they have a speech delay or other communication issue
If your child has a speech or language problem that makes it hard for them to communicate, there are several things you can do to make conversation easier.
If your child has problems staying on track in a conversation
If your child has difficulty with organized conversation or bounces between topics, talk to them about a set topic in short conversations. Go into the conversation knowing that you may not get all the information you need at one time. You may have to bring up the topic again later to ask them for more details.
If your child has problems with vocabulary
Some kids have a hard time naming how they feel about something. They may not have the vocabulary to explain their emotions. Let’s say you ask about their first day at school, and they melt down and aren’t able to tell you about it. Your child likely knows exactly how they would answer that question, but having the grammar and vocabulary to tell you the details is tricky.
You can try asking open-ended questions, like “What happened at school today?” But more specific, yes-or-no questions might work better. You can ask things like, “Are you sad about something at school?” or “Are you excited about your field trip?” Once they answer the question with a “yes” or “no,” take the conversation from there.
If your child has problems speaking clearly
Some kids have fluency issues, such as stutter, or speech sound disorders that make their speech harder to understand. People may often ask them to repeat themselves, and they may grow frustrated when trying to talk.
It’s important for your child to learn techniques to improve these issues so they can improve their speech intelligibility, or how clearly they speak. All kids should be able to be easily understood by others. The first step is an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. The speech therapist can assess your child’s speech and make recommendations for speech therapy and home practice as needed. This is true whether your child is a toddler, a 10-year-old, or a teenager–it’s never too late for speech therapy!
4 tips to get your teen to talk more
Another reason your child may not be talking as much is simply because of their age. Think back to when you were a teenager–you might have been the same way. As kids grow more independent, they may be less likely to want to chat with their parents. Your teen will likely grow out of this phase, but in the meantime, it can be tough for caregivers who simply want to connect with their kids.
If your preteen or teen seems to be giving you the silent treatment, try to put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed about something but aren’t sure how to bring up the topic with you. Maybe they’re worried about how you’ll react. Or maybe they’re simply asserting their independence and their need for privacy.
The key is to support your child through this phase by letting them know you’re there for them and you’re interested in what they have to say. Try these 4 communication tips for talking with your preteen or teen:
1 Listen first
When your child is in the mood to talk, focus on truly listening to them. They could be telling you about a big game coming up, that they’re nervous about their science test, or an interesting fact about their favorite video game. If your child is talking to you about something, chances are it's important to them. Make note of these things and really listen to what your child says. And don’t forget to ask your child about these topics later. It will show them how much you care.
2 Make statements to prompt conversation
You may have a topic you’re dying to know about from your child: How was their first day of school? Are they passing their math class? Do they have friends to sit with at lunch? These questions come from a place of care and concern, but your child may feel overwhelmed by them. Try to avoid bombarding your child with questions, especially at a time of day when they may be less likely to talk, such as right after school.
Think about it like this: As adults, we feel tired after a long day at work, and we may need some quiet time to regroup. After a long day of school, your child may feel the same way. Another time may be better, such as during dinner, before bedtime, or while riding together in the car.
Your child may feel less overwhelmed when you make statements to prompt conversation, rather than asking questions.
Your child may feel less overwhelmed when you make statements to prompt conversation, rather than asking questions. These could be things like:
Your art project is really coming along.
I know you have a big soccer game coming up.
I love your costume for the school play.
Statements, rather than questions, can help conversation with your teen feel less intimidating and more natural.
3 Ask open-ended questions
When you do ask questions, try to make them open-ended. This might prompt your child to give you longer answers.
Here’s an example. Instead of asking a yes-or-no question, such as “Did you have a good day at school?,” you could ask, “What was something good that happened at school today?” or “Tell me something about your school day.”
Kids are more likely to elaborate on their answers when you frame questions in an open-ended way.
4 Pick your topics wisely
Try to ask questions about things that are important to your child as often (or more often!) than you ask about general information you want to know. You might want to hear more about their homework than about their favorite YouTuber, but when you show them that you care about the things they’re interested in, this will go a long way.
Talking with your child can become tricky as they get older. But when you use the right techniques, you have a better chance of keeping the conversation flowing. And if you think your child might benefit by working with a speech therapist, don’t hesitate to schedule an evaluation. Speech therapy can help kids of all ages speak more clearly and build their confidence, too.