Signs & Symptoms


Is your child struggling to have back-and-forth conversation?

As a parent, do you find yourself getting bored in conversations with your child? Are you thinking, if I hear one more word about snakes today I am going to fall right asleep? Do you feel more like an audience member than a participant in a conversation? Many children may have difficulty with reciprocal conversation.

By grade school, we should see children engaging in conversation with one another. Children should not simply monologue about a topic. During typical social development, we should see children exchanging information, staying on topic, and asking questions of one another. Children should be able to engage in a conversation that is appropriate. For example, they should discuss dolls with a friend who likes dolls and soccer with someone on the same team.

Your child should be able to ask you about your day and know basic facts about family members. “Sally loves pizza,” and “Johnny is scared of spiders.” Children should be able to answer questions about the school day like “who did you sit with at lunch” without saying “I don’t know” or giving you a blank stare.

What do challenges with Conversation look like?

  • Always talking about dinosaurs?
  • Giving a monologue?
  • Acting like a little professor by offering a lecture about outer space?
  • Lecturing endlessly without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise?
  • Failing to stay on topic; constantly returning to personal interests?
  • Ignoring you in conversation, awkwardly responding “oh?”
  • Asking rapid-fire questions, rather than waiting for a response?
  • Using conversation topics that are too personal, or inappropriate?
  • Overall, having trouble with back and forth conversation that includes sharing information, listening to what others’ have to say, staying on topic and asking relevant questions?

Why is Conversation happening?

Reciprocal conversations are essential in our social world. Some important skills for conversation include: sharing information, listening to others, staying on topic, maintaining a back-and-forth social interaction, understanding the feelings and preferences of others, reading nonverbal cues and knowing when to stop talking in a conversation. 

These skills will develop as the child grows. Here are some conversation skills to look for at various developmental stages:

  • Toddlers and preschool children may begin to share information. For example, a child may say  “I have a baby sister.” 
  • In kindergarten, children share more information about themselves and answer questions. They may be less savvy at reading others and might talk too much or too little or sometimes say offensive things. 
  • By mid-grade school, children should be able to discern what conversation topics are okay and what things may be embarrassing or private. 
  • Children in late elementary and middle school start to share confidences with one another, to converse at a higher level about feelings and to identify which friends serve certain roles. For example, “John is a great listener,” “Sam knows everything about basketball” or “Jenny is the person to talk to if I’m worried about school.”

How can I manage Conversation at home?

Strategies at home: Practice with your child. Writing down a cue card might help. Comment, pause, wait for the other person to comment or ask a question, respond, comment or ask a question. You could always set a watch to vibrate every minute or so that would signal to your child to ask the other person a question when he feels the buzz.

Discuss with your child which friends like which subjects, such as video games, sports, art, or music. Help your child determine what his or her common interests are with each friend. This way, you can brainstorm conversation topics that would be good for each friend.

Finally, set up supervised play dates and outings. Give your child opportunities to get together with one other child so that he or she can practice. During these playdates, stay close by and offer your child suggestions.

You might say, “Susie said she likes soccer. Why don’t you show her your new soccer-ball?” Or, “Joe said he got first place in the swim meet, you might want to ask him about it.”

Poor social reciprocity can be a sign of a disability such as Autism or ADHD. If you suspect your child may have one of these disabilities, it is worthwhile to get an evaluation and to pursue associated therapies.

Autism: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with conversational reciprocity. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a child may fail to let another person get in a word. He may give a lecture about the Hubble Telescope or tell you every detail about his pet dog. When you say in turn “Oh, I have some pets,” this statement is met with no response, a change of subject or an awkward “(long pause) Oh. Cool.”

Children with Autism tend to have challenges with flexible conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging [1]. It is also hard to read other people when you are not paying attention to their nonverbal cues. Often, children with ASD don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see if the conversation partner is bored [1]. Also, children with ASD tend to have restricted interests. They really enjoy talking about a certain subject, which may quickly bore another child who doesn’t share that interest.

ADHD: Inattention associated with ADHD could also lead to some of these challenges because failing to pay attention to the other person impacts the quality of conversation. Kids with ADHD can be like a bull-in-a-china-shop. They may accidentally interrupt others or bump into them, which can impact social skills significantly.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Conversation?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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