Hearing your child’s first word gives you a giddy sense of pride, joy and excitement as this new developmental milestone is met. Yet two months, four years or even 10 years later you find yourself wondering why can’t you just tell me what you want or need!
The stress and confusion surrounding the stages of language development can at times feel never ending and overwhelming. When language stays stagnant and seems to make zero progress across months of time and effort, parents like yourself begin to wonder, “Is this developmentally normal?” And as a responsible parent, we’re sure you’re curious.
Good news is, no matter what life stage your child is in, there are things you can do to help improve communication channels with them.
One of the simplest ways to expose your child to language is to talk to them, and talk OFTEN through active communication. Point at objects and say their name out loud. Call out your child’s actions, “You’re clapping!” “You’re stomping!” “You’re singing!” It might be awkward at first to find yourself constantly talking to a little human who isn’t talking back, but it’s worth it.
The same concept applies as your children get older, it just evolves. If your adolescent child is silent while sitting on the couch, did you share with them something that made you happy today? Your teen is scrolling through their phone, sifting through snacks in the cupboard, did you fill them in on the latest news you heard about their favorite band?
Any language towards your child that does not require them to comment back or take a turn in exchange is an opportunity to engage in active communication and model language of the world around you. Is it strange and uncomfortable at first? Absolutely. Yet over time it gets so easy that you’ll find yourself talking endlessly.
What’s the point of all this? By exposing your child to additional language, they naturally soak it in. Believe it or not when you least expect it, you’ll hear it come straight back at you from their mouths. This is also true for inappropriate language, so be careful!
One of the most common mistakes that parents make is increasing expectations of their child too quickly. Of course, your child can make jumps and leaps in language milestones, and that is such a great accomplishment! However, when you increase language requirements or lengths of responses it can actually hinder language success.
Make sure that your child has a variety of responses at one level prior to adding ONE additional target. If you expect your child to use too many new words at once, they can confuse the meaning or begin using the same word for everything. It can be something small like a toddler calling every woman “mama” or more complex such as a preteen using “like” in between each word. And that’s like totally to like something that’s like no big deal.
One of the most frustrating hiccups in the parent-child interaction is the infamous meltdown. When a child is screaming, slamming doors or stomping and storming away, language might be the least of your worries. Yet communication during times of large upsets is crucial. Knowing your child and what might make them upset can help you get ahead of a tantrum. But when they happen, attempting to prompt appropriate or functional language while a toddler is screaming is impossible. The expectation here is doable, but the timing is off.
First you have to ride the wave of emotions and label what your child is feeling by making observable statements. Don’t label why you think your child might be upset because that’s probably more complex. Instead try something like “I see that you are upset because you are crying and yelling. You’re mad.”
Don’t expect any language from your child while they are in that escalated emotional state. Wait until they are calm and have returned to what they typically sound and look like at their resting state. Then viola! Expect them to use language to request, label and comment about their wants and needs.
When your child uses a new word correctly, take a moment to affirm its use! I recall when a close family member was working on advanced vocabulary with his teen to increase scores on the SAT. One of the ways to familiarize the teen with the new words was to have him use them in his typical daily language.
One day when approaching a community coach for a sports team the teen stated “It is imperative that I talk with you” to his coach. His dad beamed with confidence and the coach looked surprised at first and then immediately flattered. Although it got his coach’s attention, no one told the teen how awesome it was to hear that word used properly. Celebrate the small victories! This will go a long when in creating positive parent child interactions.
Even when we try our best as parents, we are always going to have moments when we aren’t the top performers. There are going to be times when we sit in silence, times when we give our children things when they just point or gesture towards items, and times when we simply say “forget it” to our teens out of tiredness and exasperation.
This is normal! Never feel bad when these things happen! This is what patience parenting is all about. As long as you take a proactive role in your child’s language development, chances are they will be just fine! If you ever begin to worry, you can always refer to the CDC guidelines for typical stages of language development, but remember that your child will ultimately meet milestones when they are ready.
If you try all of the things mentioned in this article and still have doubts or confusion about how to increase your child’s use of language, continue to check out our resources at Just Parent. We aim to offer individualized plans at the tip of your fingers to take the stress out of language development so that you can Just Parent. If you haven’t signed up to be notified when our app releases, do that on our website today!
Nicole is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Adjunct Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University