While some kids will barely utter a word, their talkative brethren are more than happy to fill the silence. How do you know when talking has crossed from socially acceptable to problematic?
Why kids talk and talk and talk… A child’s talking varies according to the situation. What parent doesn’t delight in the way her child’s face beams when he talks enthusiastically about something that was particularly interesting or rewarding at school?
Often non-stop talking is age-appropriate, such as when a toddler is excitedly developing her language skills. Some kids may talk your ear off at home, but are quiet and shy at school. On the other hand, you may have a social butterfly who finds it difficult to restrain herself from visiting with her neighbors during quiet time and classroom instruction.
“The important determining factor has to do with whether others are adversely affected,” says Dr. Richard Newman, a child psychologist. Newman specializes in working with school-aged children and adolescents who have problems that manifest in the classroom, including compulsive talking and disruption.
“I think it’s important to be tolerant about talking, to carefully listen to and watch for red flags for when talking creates problems and to discuss potential problems with children,” he says.
A youngster’s gift for gab becomes a concern if she constantly interrupts conversation, speaks in lengthy monologues and frequently gets into trouble at school for her talking.
Worse, non-stop talking can cripple your child’s social relationships, leading to lower self-esteem and social isolation.
To help your Chatty Cathy learn to moderate her talking, try a few of these gentle methods to model appropriate conversation skills:
Help your child feel heard. Julie Hanks, LCSW, a family psychotherapist, says to reflect back to make your child feel listened to and more aware of his behavior. For example: “Hmmm…you’ve told me that story about what you did at recess three times. It must have been really important to you.”
Make eye contact. When people don’t look at us when we address them, we aren’t sure if they’re truly listening and that can compel us to repeat ourselves. Put aside your phone, magazine, or tablet and give your child your full attention when he talks to you.
“Sometimes kids repeat themselves because a parent is multi-tasking,” Hanks says.
Notice your habits. Ever heard your preschooler pretending to be you talking on the phone? Then you know that kids learn how to communicate with others by watching how their parents handle social situations. Model reciprocal communication, which occurs through body language like gestures and nods, eye contact and through dialogue in which one person speaks while the other listens and then responds.
Establish boundaries. Teach your child self-control and self-regulation by setting boundaries. Point out times when it’s disruptive to talk like in the quiet space at the library or while others want to listen to a speaker or a favorite song on the radio.
If you need a break from your child’s chattering, tell her you need some quiet time. Set the timer for 15 minutes and suggest that she play in her room quietly, look at a book or color.
Make listening fun. If your child’s talking interferes with other family members’ opportunities to speak, set a limit on how long she can talk before it’s the next person’s turn.
One way to practice turn-taking is to go around the table with an item like a pepper mill or an honorary spoon, which can symbolize a mic. Whoever holds the designated “mic” holds the floor, which means it’s his turn to share his news, quip or story. No interruptions, but others can ask questions of the person doing the talking to learn more about what he shared.
Nurture social signal recognition. Some children struggle to recognize social cues like body language and tone of voice. Play charades to practice different facial expressions and body language.
Acknowledge your child’s nonverbal signals and label emotions: “You’re smiling from ear to ear. Something good must have just happened!”
Look at picture books and ask your child what the character is feeling.
Make note of other people’s body language. For example, “That lady has her arms crossed and she’s talking loudly to the clerk. How do you think she’s feeling?”
Read dialogue in books with inflection to help your child discern how the characters must be feeling based on how the dialogue is spoken. One sentence spoken in different ways can carry a variety of connotations like anger, sarcasm or gentle teasing.
Seek professional help. If you’re concerned about your child’s constant chattering, consult with his pediatrician or a mental health professional. An assessment can determine if your child’s talking is within the normal range of behavior or compulsive, i.e., he refuses to be interrupted, focuses on worries or fears or gets extremely agitated when he can’t finish a story.
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines is the mom of two boys who love to talk. Her latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.