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When Your Child Can’t Talk (and You Don’t Know What to Say About That)

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have a 2 year old boy with a severe expressive speech delay (can complete 52% at the 3-6 month level and 47% at the 6-9 month level). He also has a lip tie (and possibly a tongue tie), which is being looked at by our dentist later this month. Comprehension wise he’s where he needs to be. He has already been assessed by a speech pathologist and is attending both public and private speech therapy sessions. He also just had a hearing test which showed fluid in both ears and low response to high/low tones. We are now waiting for a referral to an ENT for further assessment and another hearing test in a few months. So there are a lot of issues contributing to his speech delay. I should also note that he shows no signs of being on the ASD at this time as they did check that during his speech assessment.

My problem is anyone who asks why he isn’t talking (mostly MIL and her husband and FIL and his wife) listens to me tell them all these details and then says “oh, he will be fine”, “boys talk later”, “he will catch up eventually”, “enjoy the peace while you can because he won’t shut up once he learns to talk” or some variation of that.

It doesn’t help that his cousin is 6 weeks younger than him and has a large vocabulary that is growing daily, so they keep comparing the two of them. My older son had no speech issues and was singing songs by this age, so they compare to that as well. My parents are very understanding as they kept him for the first 10 months until he could get in to daycare. They worked with him while I was at work and used all the speech suggestions, etc to try to get him making sounds and talking. He gets easily frustrated since he can’t communicate and sometimes that is reflected in his behavior like grabbing and throwing toys. I am teaching him some sign language so he can at least communicate some basic needs, but people see the frustrated behaviors and think he is just a toddler with lots of tantrums and bad behavior.

How can I get the point across to the in laws (and others who ask) without screaming at them till I’m blue in the face that we are working with professionals about this and no it won’t just magically be fixed one morning and no he can’t talk as much as his cousin and that’s ok! Yes, I’m heartbroken that I have never heard him say “mama” or “dada” or anything besides “hi”, “yeah” and “no”, but we are working with the specialists he needs to get him the support he needs. They can’t seem to understand why we go to these appointments and keep saying that one day he will just start talking in full sentences. My hubby travels A LOT for work and doesn’t have to deal with his parents as much as I do, so any advice would be appreciated!

Thanks you!
Speech(less) Mama

“Einstein didn’t talk until he was four!” and other assvice you’ll get

Ohhhhhh the flashbacks this letter triggered! The years (and years) of well-meaning but completely misguided words of “encouragement” and/or unsolicited advice. (Remember “assvice?” That word is way overdue for a comeback.) I can’t even fathom the number of times I was told, “Einstein didn’t talk until he was four!” or made to feel like some kind of perfectionist helicoptering headcase for taking my son for various evaluations and specialists and speech therapy.

(And then there was my MIL, who managed to play both sides, with the “oh, he’ll talk when he’s ready!” while ALSO constantly pushing dubious to downright snake-oil-y “cures” and “fixes” she read about online. Try this supplement and some essential oils! Why don’t you eliminate gluten?  Try feeding him more beets! You’re going to skip his vaccinations from now on, right?)

Coping ideas and advice for parents

1. It’s all absolutely maddening, and unfortunately, I never found a single set of magical Shut It All Down words. There was a lot of smiling and nodding in the moment (and then even more eye-rolling in the aftermath), and the occasional trying-to-sound-cheerful-but-probably-came-out-as-hugely-testy “thanks, but we’re going to follow the advice of the many specialists we’re extremely lucky to have in our lives right now.”

2. The important thing to really TRY to remember is that all those comments really do come from a place of good intentions. Your in-laws, like you, honestly want the best possible outcome for their grandson, and very likely raised their own children in a time and era before Early Intervention was a Thing. So if you can reframe their confusion over WHY you’re taking your son to all these appointments and specialists to be like any other generational parenting divide — like starting solids super early, or giving newborns extra water, etc. — that can help build a mental boundary around this topic so their words aren’t smacking extra hard against something you’re extra sensitive about.

Like, I learned early on that my MIL was a SUPER unreliable narrator when it came to her advice and recollections about breastfeeding and potty-training (SO EASY, both things! happens like magic, with no work or struggle at all! totally not sure what YOUR problem is, hahahaha!), and any input from her fell solidly in the “smile and nod, then change the subject immediately” category. The speech delay stuff might just be that category for you, for now.

3. Less is more with some people. I don’t know how much information you’re volunteering to them, but go ahead and…stop. Stop trying to get “the point” across. They don’t need to hear about every detail about every appointment or evaluation, beyond essential scheduling and babysitting needs. They don’t need to agree that all of this stuff is justified because it’s not their kid, not their call.

And in fact, because he’s NOT their kid, they’re probably always going to default to the boilerplate comments (“boys talk later! he’s fine!”) because…well, that’s easier and more encouraging-sounding than, “wow, yeah, this kid can’t talk and I’m actually really worried about him.”

(I was recently asked point-blank by an acquaintance if she should be worried about her son’s speech development and I straight-up panicked and babbled nonsense about kids all going at their own pace, blah blah blah. Meanwhile my brain was SCREAMING  that yeah, that kid needs an appointment with Infants & Toddlers and a developmental pediatrician ASAP.)

(I ended up sending an email later. It’s hard!)

4. Practice a boilerplate and simple explanation. I totally understand your (very real) need to talk to people openly and honestly about your concerns for your son, and all the work/appointments/stress/unknowns that you’re dealing with right now. Your in-laws and random parents on the playground probably aren’t those people. So try to be ready with a simple, cheerful “Bran has an appointment this Tuesday, can you watch Jon from 10:30 to about lunchtime?” or a “No, he’s not really talking much yet, but we’re working on it!” or even (if you can manage it without your head exploding) a “Yes, I’ve heard that fact about Einstein! I guess I’m raising a super-genius hahahaha!”

And then SUBJECT CHANGE. SO FAST.

5. It’s all a balancing act. When you’re parenting a special needs or atypically developing child, there’s a protective impulse to want to educate the world about them. You want the world to UNDERSTAND them, to love and accept them while ALSO understanding the unique challenges and hard work you face as their parent. It can be a balancing act then, between being open and honest about Everything and…well, avoiding the topic with certain people so you don’t blow a frustration gasket.

Final thoughts

But! Here’s the really good part: My son talks now. He talks a LOT. He is excelling and thriving in just about every aspect of life, and still doing it all in his own exceedingly quirky and unique way.

And now my MIL tells everyone who will listen all about him, and about how hard we worked for him, how we never stopped fighting for the support and help he needed, and how much it really shows.

************

More on Children’s Speech Delays here:

1. What To Do When You Suspect Your Child Is Speech Delayed
2. Speech Delay: To Evaluate or Not To Evaluate
3. Dispatches From Speech Delay Island

Photo source: Depositphotos/AllaSerebrina

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Caroline Bowman
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Caroline Bowman

Right, so with the in-laws… one day, when your husband is with you and the children are elsewhere (this may require some arranging, but bear with me), you sit down with them in a somewhat formal manner, like a sort of intervention. You give each of them a sheet with all of the things you’re doing re your son’s speech issues in bullet points, large font. Include some websites as well. Then you take a deep breath – by now they will be blustering – and say ”there seems to be ongoing confusion around why Jasper isn’t talking. I’ve tried… Read more »

Ros
Guest
Ros

If it helps at all… people just internalize ‘most kids are mostly ok’, and stick through it in the most astounding of ways. Everything always ‘just works out’ with no intervention, according to most people. Literally, I’m having a kid with a congenital heart issue that requires surgery, and people are actually telling me I don’t need to consult because kids just turn out ok. Miraculously.

It’s obnoxious, not helpful in the slightest, adds to the stress and emotional labor, and generally sucks. I’m sorry.

Ali
Guest
Ali

This isn’t helpful for the issue of how to respond, but just wanted to chime in and say I was sitting in your shoes a few years ago and know the frustration. My son also was severely delayed with expressive language, but on track for receptive. It is hard when people either assume worst case scenario for your child OR insist nothing is really wrong. I didn’t figure out any great answer for it, so I just didn’t discuss it with others. I can remember him at that age just screaming in the kitchen because I couldn’t figure out what… Read more »

Sam Smith
Guest
Sam Smith

“Kids move at their own pace” – I’m face palming myself now because I just said that exact phrase the other day and now feel like such a dumb dumb. I realize now that may not have been the most helpful thing to say, but honestly in the moment, I had no idea what else to say other than to try to communicate “it’s okay, he’s okay, you are okay, it’s gonna be okay”. For what it’s worth, I’m one of those family members with a typically developing kiddo and an aunt to an atypical developing kiddo, and I know… Read more »