Some children seem reluctant to talk and are not as expressive as others. They do not naturally talk to express their needs and wants, provide comments or ask questions, or to entertain others.

Being quiet in new situations is very common in children, particularly young children. This is a normal part of growing up and parents should not usually be concerned.

Why it generally happens

Being asked to "perform" for relatives or strange adults and children makes children feel embarrassed. New situations often frighten or worry children. They may not be sure about what to do or how to behave. They may be very concerned about being separated from their parents or about being away from home.

What it is like for the child

Putting a young child in a new situation is like asking an adult to speak in front of a large audience. Most of us are very nervous about public speaking and this same type of fear is felt by children asked to enter a new and unfamiliar environment.

What it is like for the parents

Parents may also feel very embarrassed or ashamed. Sometimes they feel like the child is misbehaving or deliberately defying the parent. As a result parents may get angry or mad at the child. This will make the child feel worse and less likely to "perform" or behave appropriately.

How the parents can help the reluctant talker?

• Follow the childs' lead. You may notice that the child is more talkative during certain tasks or activities. Provide frequent opportunities for the child to engage in these activities.

•Provide extra time for the child to produce a response. If it is whispered, accept the response as a good start. Indicate that you are having some trouble hearing and suggest that the problem is yours "I didn't quite hear that. I must be having trouble with my ears."

• Give the child the opportunity to fill in the rest of your sentence by filling in the blank. For example, "then the little pig said, "not by the hair of my "". If the child only makes an animal noise or sound effect, recognize that this is an attempt to communicate and praise the child for a correct or appropriate response.

•Act as though they did speak and respond to the unspoken remark. For example, if you give them something and say, "Say thank you." then say, "You're welcome" just as if they had said "Thank You". (This is not meant to be sarcastic. You are modelling appropriate conversation to encourage talking.)

• Encourage guessing. It takes the right/wrong edge off the response. "Guess what we are having for dinner".

• Create situations where the child is likely to talk. For example, hold the book upside down to read it, or 'forget' to give the child something they need, like a spoon for their cereal at breakfast.

• Model good speech while the child is busy with an activity. Talk about what they are doing and the items they are using. There is no expectation of a response but the child hears the words and sentences that match the activity.

•Reward speech efforts immediately. Praise from a parent is a very powerful reward!

Avoid the following:

Do not press the child to speak or punish them for not speaking.

Do not withhold toys or food until they speak. This could start a pattern of the child becoming withdrawn or angry, and it could also escalate to a battle for control between the child and parent or other authority figures, such as teachers.

When is it a 'problem' or time to get special help?

When the child is not communicating with others in his home, or is unable to talk in situations outside the home, it is time to get help. It is important to know that this is not a case of 'will not talk' but 'can not talk' due to fear. Contact the Preschool Speech and Language Services in your area. If your child has started school, contact the classroom teacher and ask about an assessment for speech and language services.

Article prepared by Genese Warr-Leeper, Professor in Communication Disorders
at the University of Western Ontario.

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