What is Communication in Childhood?
Communication in childhood is the ability to connect with other people through verbal (using words to express oneself and understand others) or nonverbal means (using eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions).
The most important communication skill is what is called ‘reciprocal communication,’ which is the ability to have a back-and-forth, to-and-fro conversation. This ability is key for social interactions, particularly as your child advances into the mid-elementary school years.
Children with difficulty in communicating likely need help making friends. Parents can help by suggesting conversation topics and modeling reciprocal communication. For example, a parent can hold a tennis ball and start a conversation. Then the parent gives the ball to the child and says, ‘your turn.’ This type of practice in reciprocal language can be key to advancing your child’s social skills.
In the following articles, you will find information about nonverbal communication in terms of gesture use, eye contact, and emotional expression. Communication skills also include expressing one’s thoughts (expressive language), understanding communication from other people (receptive language), and communicating socially with peers (pragmatic language). In this section, you will learn about all of those communication skills and how you can help your child work on these important abilities at home, at school, and in the community.
Types of Communication Problems in Childhood
We can break down child communication problems more specifically into different skills. In the articles that follow, we will review these types of communication issues in more detail.
- Expressive language – communication that involves expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas
- Receptive language – communication that involves understanding and comprehending what others are saying in conversation or lecture
- Following directions – communication that includes listening and following instructions given by adults
- Pragmatic language – communication that involves communicating socially with peers both verbally and non-verbally
- Narrative coherence – communication that includes telling stories that make sense
- Articulation – communication that uses proper speech sounds so that words come out clearly
- Voice – communication that is appropriate to the context, such as talking softly in the movie theater and loudly on the sports field
- Nonverbal communication- communication that includes facial expressions, eye contact, and body language
- English language learner– communication that includes learning English vocabulary, phrases, slang, jokes, and academic language
Symptoms of Communication Problems in Childhood
Saying, “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” or “I can’t say it” – your child may express frustration over trying to communicate and not quite knowing how to share ideas clearly and fluently.
Struggling to form sentences – your child may have trouble speaking in complete sentences that make sense. Their words may come out in a jumbled-up or confusing order.
Trouble with verb tense or plurals – your child may say they ‘goed’ instead of ‘they went’ or may say ‘gooses’ for geese. They may get stuck on pronouns referring to a female teacher as ‘he’ or ‘Mr.’ They may say ‘You want a cookie” when they mean, “I want a cookie.”
Saying, ‘what’ or ‘huh’ – your child may seem confused when people are talking. They may ask ‘what’ or request that people repeat what they say.
Getting in trouble – your child may be getting in trouble with the teacher for not following instructions or completing tasks.
Seeming ‘gullible’ – your child may misunderstand or misinterpret the motives or intentions of others. Peers may take advantage of your child’s innocence or naivety.
Saying ‘wabbit’ for ‘rabbit’ – your child may have trouble pronouncing certain words, particularly when saying the ‘r’ ‘l’ or ‘k’ sound. This challenge is a problem of speech articulation.
Telling stories that don’t make sense – your child may confuse people by telling long meandering stories that seem to have no beginning or end.
Misinterpreting nonverbal cues – your child is not understanding nonverbal cues. It is easier to interpret and understand someone’s intent in communication if you can take nonverbal aspects into account. It also helps get the point across if you can use gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, etc.
Causes of Communication Problems in Childhood
- Social skills problems: in childhood some children will have difficulty communicating because they do not inherently understand how to interpret social cues. They may not realize that the situation demands a more casual communication style with peers. They may not read the non-verbal cues from friends at school that indicate it is time to wrap up a conversation, give someone else a turn, or move on to a different topic. Children with attention deficit- hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism (ASD) may have such social skills challenges, and they will interfere significantly with communication skills.
- Expressive language disorder: in childhood the most common cause of expressive language issues is a language delay or a language disorder. Expressive Language Disorder is somewhat common in childhood and is amenable to treatment. It is characterized by a limited or decreased vocabulary for the person’s age, difficulty using pronouns appropriately, and trouble with verb forms, plurals, and the rules or content of language.
- Other language disorders: in childhood in addition to expressive language disorders, which are somewhat common, there are the following other disorders: receptive language, pragmatic language, mixed expressive-receptive language, and speech articulation disorders. All of these can be diagnosed by a speech pathologist and will have a significant impact on communication skills.
- Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): in childhood ‘small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in the course of childhood. A child’s communication style may be impacted even with a more common distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama. If your child suddenly stops communicating with you, it will be important to get curious about what could be happening emotionally. Often, small t traumas cause significant and ongoing stress that can lead to poor coping mechanisms and persistent emotional regulation problems. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved communication skills.
- Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): in childhood ‘big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. Some children may have communication challenges after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with big T traumatic experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.
Using a list like the one below can help you talk to your child’s teacher or speech therapist about the concerns you are seeing in your child’s language development.
- Verbal expression: your child may frequently say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” when trying to express their thoughts when verbal expression is an issue.
- Formulating sentences: your child understands what you are asking but cannot come up with an appropriate response. Your child may have difficulty identifying the correct vocabulary to create long and complex sentences. He may have trouble describing what he wants to say.
- Remembering words: your child may struggle with remembering words. They may not appropriately use verb tenses, such as past, present, and future. Due to problems with verb tenses, they may have difficulty writing stories and describing an event that happened.
- Frustration over word choice: your child may not use the correct words and may get frustrated. This frustration could result in behavioral problems or low self-esteem. Sometimes, children with expressive language problems misuse words because they don’t understand what they mean. Some children misuse pronouns when referring to others.
- Social challenges: your child may be very conscious of their language difficulties and may even be hesitant to make new friends or engage in social activities due to their communication skills.
The issues described above are not necessarily signs of an actual language disorder. Rather, they are clues about where your child is struggling. Knowing the specifics can help you target the right school-based or community-based interventions.
What to Do About Communication Challenges in Childhood
Here are steps you can take if you are concerned about your child’s language skills.
- Talk with your pediatrician: to discuss implications in child development and possibly for a referral to see a speech-language pathologist. You may discuss family history with your doctor as you may discover that communication was a challenge for parents or relatives at a young age.
- Talk to your child’s teacher: about meeting with the school speech-language pathologist, who can determine if an evaluation is necessary. The school special education team, including a learning specialist and psychologist, could also determine if further testing may be required to rule out other possible disabilities.
- Get your child’s language tested at school: talk to your child’s teacher about meeting with the school speech-language pathologist, who can determine if an evaluation is necessary. The school special education team, including a learning specialist and psychologist, could also determine if further testing may be required to rule out other possible learning disabilities or a language disorder.
When to Seek Help For Communication Challenges
When your child cannot express oneself verbally or with written tasks: if your child struggles with coming up with the words they want to say, sharing ideas with others, and telling stories, it is time to get help.
The good news is that these challenges are readily amenable to treatment. Speech therapy can do wonders for a child struggling to express their thoughts at school, at home, or in the community.
Not socializing: your child may not choose to socialize much with other children their age because it may be difficult to communicate ideas. They may prefer to play alone or with family who understands them. If your child is experiencing these challenges at school, consult with the teacher early and often.
Academic challenges: if your child struggles with expressive, receptive, or pragmatic language issues this can affect all academic areas. These disorders can impact written language tasks, speaking in class, and social communication. Your child may struggle with various subjects that require public speaking or writing.
If this is the case, you should inform your school team. Often interventions are available through the school’s Response to Intervention program. If your child continues to struggle, even with these interventions, the school may be able to provide services for your child’s expressive language or academic challenges.
Further Resources on Communication in Childhood
- Speech-language pathologists: to provide speech therapy in expressive language and communication skills if special needs there are identified
- Special education teacher: to help with reading and writing that may be impacted by expressive language or a speech disorder
- Psychologist: to help with any emotional or social challenges associated with the expressive language problem
- Pediatrician: to provide a referral for therapy or diagnose any related medical conditions
- Geneticist: to evaluate if genetic issues are suspected
Book Resources for Communication Problems in Childhood
Speech-Language Milestones: http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/chart.htm
Apel, Kenn & Masterson, Julie (2012). Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers.
Bernstein, Deena K. & Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.
American Speech-Language Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org/
Law, James; Garrett, Zoe & Nye, Chad. (2003). Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and language delay or disorder.
Meiners, Cheri J (2005). Talk and work it out.
Faber, Adele, (2012). How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.
Maguire, Natalia (2020) My body sends a signal: helping kids recognize and express feelings.
Skeen, Michelle; McKay, Matthew (2016) Communication skills for teens: how to listen, express and connect for success.
Crist, James J (2014) The survival guide for making and being friends.
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