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What to do when your child won’t talk

It’s been a great day. You’re heading to school to pick up the kids. You’re excited to hear about their new classes, new teachers and friends, and you want to know if they enjoyed the lunch you lovingly prepared, you have so many questions to ask. Then your child gets into the car, and the conversation usually goes a little something like this:

“How was school today?”


“What did you do?”


“Who did you play with?”

(shoulder shrug)

Sound familiar? If so, then you’re definitely living with a school-aged child. If you thought that this non-starter of a conversation is typical of teenagers, you might be surprised to hear that it is typical of any-aged school attender.

Can you feel the tension mounting just by reading the conversation, remembering the frustration you felt when you had a similar experience earlier today? You’re definitely not alone.

As a Speech Pathologist, I’m often asked “what’s wrong with my child? They won’t talk to me!” or “I’m sure there’s something wrong with their memory, they can’t even remember what they did today!”

As parents, it’s easy to see this lack of communication as a memory issue, or a problem understanding language. We may even think that there is something wrong with us. Why won’t our children talk to us when we just saw them talking to their friends and teachers? Don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with us as parents. This ‘silent’ treatment is very normal.

Here’s what to do when your child gives you the silent treatment:

  1. Think about their day

School is a big, wide, often crazy place. There are rules to follow, social situations to navigate and lots of brain energy that gets expended. Our children have a lot to deal with and for many of them, navigating the school day requires immense amounts of energy. Quite simply, the moment they get into the car or home from school they are in a safe place. They can finally let their guard down and enjoy the moment of relaxation without the pressure to perform or make decisions. Answering questions is the last thing they feel like doing.

  1. Let them know you are interested in what is going on in their world.

Now may not be the perfect time to chat, but it is the ideal time to let your child know that you are interested and want to be engaged with them when they’re ready. For example, you can say something like “I’m looking forward to hearing more about your day later.”

  1. Make some time to chat.

When you get home, sitting down for a snack together can be the perfect time to take 10 minutes together to talk about your day. Perhaps you have the opportunity for some one-to-one moments together while you’re waiting for a sibling to finish an after school activity.

Start the conversation by sharing something that happened in your day first, before asking your child a question about their day. Be honest about your experiences.

We are often more likely to open up about ourselves when we know that someone else has taken the risk first.

  1. Ask specific questions

Sometimes our questions are too general, and the possibilities of answers are too overwhelming. For example, “who did you hang out with at lunch?” is much easier to answer than “What did you do today?

Ask questions about:

  • Specific classes and activities

  • Specific teachers or friends

  • Something about the classroom and environment

  • Something about their feelings about the day

  1. Open questions are best, but choice questions are an excellent place to start.

We all know that asking open questions like who, how, why encourage longer answers as they can’t be answered by a simple yes or no. But when those open questions are too much for your child, you can get the conversation started, or at least learn something about their day, by asking choice questions.

Choice questions give two options for a response. Instead of thinking about a whole new answer, your child can just choose the option that best fits. For example, asking “Did you play on the equipment or kick the ball on the oval at lunchtime?” will give you more information than merely asking “What did you do at lunch?” or “Did you play on the equipment?”

Try it, and you’ll be impressed by how a choice question can spark a longer conversation and take the frustration out of trying to talk to your reluctant child.

  1. Family highlights and lowlights

You can make sharing about your day a whole-family practice. It’s great to do this over dinner. Ask each family member to say what the lowlight of their day was, a point in the day that wasn’t particularly great. Then ask them to share their highlight of the day. It’s amazing what you can learn about each child from this simple activity. Lowlights and highlights are personal and are not judged by the rest of the family, but the individual’s feelings are acknowledged. Sometimes one person’s lowlight is another person’s highlight, and you can learn from each other’s perspectives. This activity doesn’t have to take long. Sometimes you’ll only manage a one-line answer from some family members, but on other days you’ll launch into beautiful conversations. At the very least, it will keep everyone at the table until everyone has had time to share!

If you’re dealing with a reluctant talker, you can discuss your concerns with us. At Newcastle Speech Pathology, we help adults and children connect through conversation. We can help you navigate your concerns about your child’s speech, language and communication by creating a tailored assessment and intervention plan.

To make an appointment or to learn more contact us today on +61 (02) 4948 9800 or email


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