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SocializingReciprocal Conversations

Conversation Skills in Childhood

Two young girls having a conversation.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 26 Aug 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What is Reciprocal Conversation in Childhood?

Reciprocal conversation in childhood is the ability to carry on a back-and-forth dialogue with a partner, by making comments, asking questions, and commenting on a topic being discussed. 

A reciprocal conversation includes multiple exchanges of asking questions, answering questions, and building on each other’s comments. This process involves listening carefully and knowing what to say next. Conversations include nonverbal communication such as gestures, eye contact, and body language. 

If reciprocal conversation is a concern, your child may struggle to share information, listen to others, or stay on topic. It may be hard for them to engage in small talk, meet new people and to read or express appropriate nonverbal communication. 

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Symptoms of Lack of Conversation Skills In Childhood 

  • Having one-sided conversations: your child often only talks about topics of personal interest. For example, sharing at length about a favorite TV or YouTube character 
  • Not noticing when partner is bored: your child does not notice that the listener is no longer interested in the ongoing conversation
  • Acting like a professor: your child shares a monologue, providing lectures about outer space, trains, climate, or any other topic of interest
  • Ignoring people in conversation: your child may respond with an awkward “oh” in conversations with peers or adults
  • Asking rapid-fire questions: your child asks questions but does not pause to hear the answer
  • Talking but not listening: your child is engaging in conversation but not listening to what the conversation partner is saying and is failing to ask questions or give others a chance to talk
  • Starting conversations that are too personal: your child struggles to understand that a question is not appropriate, or tells peers or strangers too much personal information 
  • Struggling to be reciprocal: your child has trouble sharing information, listening to what others have to say, staying on topic, and asking relevant questions
  • Missing nonverbal cues or expressions: your child is not sure when to smile, make eye contact or gesture. Your child stands too close or too far, or cannot read these nonverbal cues from others
  • Veering off-topic: your child constantly returns to topics of personal interest, even when the information is completely out of context to the current conversation
  • Acting like it’s a show: your child acts as if they are on stage and you are an audience member 

What Age-Appropriate Conversation Skills Look Like in Childhood 

During typical social development, we should see children at social events or in social situations exchanging information, staying on topic, asking questions of one another, and listening to the answers. Children should be able to engage in a conversation that is appropriate and demonstrates that they are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. 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.

Reciprocal conversation should continue to become more sophisticated as a child gets older. Conversation skills are a part of personal development and communication.

Children should begin to make friends and have close friends who play together frequently, talk to each other online or via the phone and share common interests.

In toddlers and preschool ages, children may begin to share information. They may have simple exchanges like, “I have a baby sister,” or “I have a baby brother named Scott.”

In kindergarten, children should have the ability to share information about themselves and answer questions. They may be less savvy at reading others and might talk too much or too little or 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 [4].

Late elementary and middle school, children and teens start to share confidences with one another, converse at a higher level about feelings, and identify which friends serve which roles in their lives [3]. For example, a child might think, “John is a great listener,” “Sam knows everything about basketball,” or “Jenny is the person to talk to if I’m worried about social studies.”

Taken together, social skills that are demonstrated through reciprocal conversations evolve as the child grows. For children to have solid relationships with peers, they need to have the following top ten skills in place.

Top 10 Skills Required for Reciprocal Conversations

  1. Sharing information
  2. Listening to others
  3. Staying on topic
  4. Showing genuine interest
  5. Participating fully in social events
  6. Offering varied facial expressions
  7. Maintaining a back-and-forth social interaction
  8. Social perspective-taking
  9. Reading nonverbal cues and knowing when to stop talking and ask a question
  10.  Knowing when to change the subject

Causes of Lack of Conversation Skills in Childhood

Language disorder 

Poor conversational reciprocity means difficulty understanding how to share information in a back-and-forth manner.  This conversation challenge could be due to a language disorder such as Expressive Language Disorder, Receptive Language Disorder, or Pragmatic Language Disorder.

Autism 

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with conversational reciprocity. When evaluated for autism, a child may fail to let the evaluator get a word into the conversation. The child may give a lecture about the Hubble Telescope or tell the examiner every detail about their pet dog. When the adult says, “Oh, I have some pets,” the child may stare blankly or respond with an awkward, “Oh.”

Autistic children tend to have challenges with flexible conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging [1]. They can have a hard time reading the social cues from others because they’re not paying attention to nonverbal cues. Often, autistic children don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see if the conversation partner is paying attention [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 a bit abrasive or overbearing in a conversation. They may accidentally interrupt others or bump into them, which can impact social skills and conversations.

What to Do About Lack of Conversation Skills in Childhood

  • DO practice conversation skills with your child. Write conversation topics on an index card and practice talking about different topics.  Comment, pause, and wait for the other person to comment or ask a question. You could set a watch to vibrate every minute or so that would signal to your child to ask the other person a question 
  • DO discuss specific subjects with your child.  Talk to your child about what other kids may be interested in talking about, such as: video games, sports, art, or music. Help your child determine what their common interests are with each friend. This way, you can brainstorm conversation topics that would be good for each friend.
  • DO set up supervised play dates and outings. Give your child opportunities to get together with one other child so that they 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.”

When to Seek Help for Conversation Skills Issues

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. While not everyone loves small talk or feels they are good at it, the skill of being able to have a conversation is important socially and professionally in life.

Professional Resources for Conversation Skills Issues in Childhood 

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
  • Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective taking and social skills like conversion skills and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety
  • ABA therapist: to provide Applied Behavior Analysis using principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to address social skills, conversation, and social perspective-taking
  • Speech and language pathologist: to provide speech and/or language support. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services

Similar Conditions to Poor Conversation Skills in Childhood

  • Social skills: children with poor social skills may lead to difficulties with conversations
  • Attention: children with attention problems may have trouble following along in a conversation [5]
  • Repetitive behavior, perseverating, rigidity, and rigid behavior: children with restricted patterns of behavior or interests may struggle with conversations 
  • Pragmatic language: children with poor pragmatic skills do not understand social language and will have some difficulty with reciprocal conversations
  • Receptive language: children with impaired comprehension skills may have difficulty with conversations

References on Conversation Skills in Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

[3] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.

[4] Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.

[5] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.

Book Resources on Conversation Skills in Childhood

Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.

Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

Children’s books on social skills

Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).

Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).

Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.

Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.




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