Every child develops at their own pace. That doesn’t stop parents from getting anxious if their child appears to be falling behind their friends’ children on particular milestones. Children who are delayed in speech or who develop selective mutism may find it difficult to bond with their peers, keep up in class and meet all the same developmental milestones without the social support reinforced by communication.
If you’re struggling to get your preschooler to open up, it’s important first and foremost to keep in mind you shouldn’t try to force them to talk. Asking them to perform, interrogating them with the intention of ‘tricking’ them into talking and trying to shame them into speaking by forcing a conversation with a third party will not help. This will only make shy or anxious children clam up more. Instead, think about ways you can reinforce speech as a helpful tool in communicating and bonding.
Identify their nonverbal cues
If your toddler is refusing to speak up for any reason, it’s important to retain patience. Instead of forcing her to talk, try to go along with her nonverbal cues. Is she dragging you to the kitchen for an obvious request for a meal? Comment on what’s happening. Ask her where she’s taking you, observe that it’s the kitchen, and talk about what meal you will make for her. Opening up this communication can both let your child know that you’re deeply interested in what they’re trying to communicate and show them that talking may be the most efficient means of communicating what they want. Ignoring their non-verbal cues may only reinforce the idea that you aren’t interested in their opinion, which can reinforce shyness and silence.
Figure out what’s making them quiet
Children don’t fall silent for the same reason. It could be that your son is a chatterbox at home but clams up when he gets to school - in which case, shyness and fear are likely dictating his silence. It could also be that they have a developmental disorder that’s preventing them from expressing their ideas. Anything from autism to a stutter can make your kid quieter than normal.
There are a number of unintentional behaviors parents may exhibit that can discourage speech, particularly in a child suffering from developmental delays or childhood anxiety. Avoid correcting your young child’s speech errors - she will learn with time. Try to validate her fears and concerns, and provide ample opportunity for her to speak up and share her opinion.
Read and create stories together
Kids are far more likely to open up when they’re relaxed and enjoying themselves. One great way to reinforce language, encourage your child to speak and sneak in some parental bonding time is to read and create stories with your child every night. That can mean picking out a book to read out loud to her, or inventing a story based on her interests. By reading a story out loud, you give your child language they can become excited about. Encourage them to participate in the reading - ask for ideas to develop a story you’re telling, or ask her to guess what’s coming next in the book. Let her handle the book herself, flip through the pages, identify what parts she’s interested in. Offer to let her read simpler books herself.
Minimize the TV time
Lots of parents are tempted to switch the TV on and plop their toddler down in front of Judge Judy or other legal program. After all, TV is constantly talking, which means it must be beneficial for language acquisition, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Children need interaction, which means a television simply won’t do the job. A mom or dad talking directly to them, responding to their actions and explaining concepts that need to be explained is significantly more effective than any television can ever be. In fact, a television may even be harmful for children who are struggling to catch up developmentally because it’s so non-engaging. Minimize the television time your child gets and try to talk with her as much as possible. There’s simply no substitute for human conversation.
Getting your child to open up and start talking can be an incredibly vexing problem, but the best solutions involve patience and constant conversation. Don’t pressure your child to talk when she’s uncomfortable, but give her the opportunity whenever you can. Include her in your conversations, solicit her opinion and play with her. The happier she gets, the more comfortable she’ll be communicating normally with you.