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When It's Not Your Child

When It’s Not Your Child

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My nephew, a darling little boy of four-and-a-half, isn’t quite developing on track. He’s still in diapers, which, by itself, wouldn’t terrify me, except for the fact that he can’t communicate much at all. He’s growing up in a bilingual household, so I’ve been told that we’re to expect some delay in his speech skills. But four years old seems to me long enough to at least learn to string together a few words on his own. The few phrases he repeats are copied from his mom and dad; the rest of his animated babble makes no sense at all, in either of his parents’ languages.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesHe’s willful and stubborn and won’t be told what to do because he often doesn’t seem to notice you exist, let alone pay attention to your call or command. Reading a book with him is a joke. He doesn’t care for the story, just concentrates on leafing through the pages, back and forth, looking at the pictures.

Is he merely willful and stubborn? Does he just not like to be told what to do, and so ignores many comments directed toward him? His parents took him to a child psychologist when he was three, but they were told then that he was just fine and that he would start speaking late because of language confusion or some such. Well, it’s late now, and I’m worried. Isn’t it true that in cases of actual communication disorders, the longer the wait to therapy, the harder it will always be to communicate?

~ Thinking Worried Thoughts…

Confession: the question queue is littered with more than small handful of questions similar to yours — of the “I suspect a delay in a child who is not mine, do I say something?” variety. And I haven’t really tackled them because I don’t know what the right answer is.

No one needed to tell me that my child was falling behind developmentally. I knew. My husband knew. And we were very fortunate that the first “experts” we turned to agreed, instead of telling us to “wait and see” and “boys just talk late” and “it’s just his personality.” If that had happened…even waiting six months or a year…yeah, we would have lost vital time and crucial therapy windows to identify Noah’s primary issues and close the gap as best we could.

But even though I KNEW, concerns or unsolicited advice from people? Weren’t exactly welcome. My mother-in-law randomly sent books about child development that had NOTHING to do with what we were facing, and I greeted them with little more than an eyeroll. My blog comments were either a fount of awesome knowledge and ideas…or something I couldn’t even read some days because WAIT NO YOU DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW HIM LIKE I DO STOP TALKING. Noah’s first preschool teacher told me she thought he had Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) and/or Attention Deficit Disorder. Those are (OH THE  IRONY) precisely the diagnoses we’re currently facing, but damn, at the time we were just trying to sort through a speech delay, and she still had no right or place to say that to me, who the hell did she think she was, grumble bitter grrrraaaawwwrrrr. It just made me angry and defensive…and didn’t exactly make me rush home to pick up the phone and schedule a new evaluation that afternoon.

So if I, a parent who KNEW that my child likely needed intervention of some kind, still had a gut reaction like that to a well-meaning (if unqualified) concerns, I hesitate to tell a stranger over the Internet to “go ahead! speak up! say something! it’s in the best interest of the child!”  Because I feel like the odds of the parent who refuses to acknowledge any problem at all being any more receptive and non-offended are pretty low. I have definitely bit my tongue on multiple occasions with other parents — ones who are clearly ignoring something, or going gung-ho about a treatment option that’s been proven questionable or sketchy. ONE TIME, I actually sort-of half mentioned the idea of getting a second opinion when an acquaintance’s son “passed” a cursory evaluation by Early Intervention despite showing signs of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Eventually, they got one. A year later. When they decided to get one.

However, you’re family. And it sounds like your nephew’s parents were at least at one time aware enough that something was up to take him to a child psychologist, so perhaps raising your continued concerns (“sooooo, you guys planning to take him to see something different this time? what’s the plan for kindergarten?”) wouldn’t be completely out of left field.

That said, I kind of want to smack that child psychologist. Because while it’s true, children in bilingual households do tend to talk later…four-and-a-half is LATE. LATE-LATE. And you know what? Noah’s been in Early Intervention programs since his second birthday, and every single one (every! single! one!) was also attended and utilized by similar-aged “late talkers” from bilingual households. Just because it’s a general sort-of “expected” thing doesn’t mean those kids won’t benefit from some extra help, or should be ignored completely until they eventually catch up on their own.

And I’m curious as to how long the child psychologist advised his parents to wait it out. Because in local math, in six-ish months,  your nephew will be considered old enough for kindergarten, depending on when his birthday is. I don’t know where he lives — if he’s even in the States at all — but…is he in preschool? Daycare? Haven’t concerns been raised there, at some point? What does his pediatrician say? Has he had his hearing checked? Have they tried sign language? Can his parents call the school district for an evaluation? See a developmental pede? Take him for a full receptive/expressive language evaluation somewhere that sees regularly sees bilingual families? Take him…well, ANYWHERE other than that child psych who put them on a “wait-and-see” track without any backup plan for a follow-up in six months or a year, much less a full year and half?

While I’m sure there ARE four-and-a-half year olds out there who still wear diapers and have no patience for books because they’re just that stubborn, and there ARE bilingual kids who catch up verbally overnight with no other underlying issues, your question is literally exploding with red flags when you take them all together. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be to be four-and-a-half years old and still be unable to communicate effectively. I’d probably get pretty damn stubborn and willful too. Yes, he really should be talking more than a few echolalic phrases and baby talk. He should be paying attention to what other people say and have more advanced social and play skills. Yes, every kid is different and unique and march to their own drummer and some just sort of develop in explosions and spurts and catch up mysteriously on their own, but…plenty don’t.

As a not-exactly-super-relevant point of reference: Noah is just one year older than your nephew. I’m guessing you read my blog and know where he currently stands developmentally, which is no where near the level of delay your nephew seems to be stuck at. And yet there’s still so much room for improvement and need for accommodation, enough to qualify him for special education and continued private therapy. Not necessarily for a communication disorder or language delay anymore, but…likely because once we already tackled that one, and moved on to the next layer, like a developmental onion.

All this to say: I think your worry is completely justified. I wish I had advice on how to bring it up with his parents, how to phrase it so they’d be both motivated to action AND not defensive or angry at you for trying to “diagnose” their child, or just something else you could DO, but I don’t. It’s hard when it’s your own kid. It’s hard when it’s NOT your own kid, and not your choice or call. Good luck, and know that we’re all rooting for your nephew.

If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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

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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  • Jenny

    March 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I’d add that it is likely that the parents already know something is going on and are trying to work on it.

    Not everyone is comfortable sharing lots of things, so to you they may be ignoring, but they might actually be dealing wit it.

  • Anonymous

    March 11, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    “Because I feel like the odds of the parent who refuses to acknowledge any problem at all being any more receptive and non-offended are pretty low. ”
    Thanks, I think that is exactly what i needed to hear.

  • Olivia

    March 11, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Perhaps one way to bring it up is with the parent who is your sibling alone. Start out with, “You are such awesome parents and I just love nephew so much. What I want talk to you about is in no way a judgement of your parenting skills. Maybe you’ve already got this covered and don’t want to talk about it, but I’m concerned….”

  • Susan

    March 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    my thought is that they probably wont take it well no matter what you say, but in the long run it’s better for your nephew if you say something than if you keep quiet about your concerns. sooner or later his parents WILL realize that there is a problem and if there’s any chance in hell that you can speed up that realization you should go for it. 

  • IrishCream

    March 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    My nephew has some issues that has made his life challenging, including severe ADD. My brother tends to be touchy and defensive at times (his whole life, not just about my nephew). I’ve found the approach that works best for our situation us to just ask about things in a matter-of-fact way, not tiptoeing around like it’s a big taboo topic. I think it also helps that I never put my own two cents in, so my brother knows by now that I’m asking because I want an update about my nephew because I love him, not because I think they’re not on top of thongs or because I feel entitled to share my opinion or assvice.

  • JB

    March 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Is it still bad that I think you should say something – but maybe in a slightly different way? (Explained below).

    Advantages of saying something – you’ll be able to sleep better at night, “maybe that’s the push they needed,” etc.

    Disadvantages of saying something – they get super-pissed and defensive at you. To me that is still a risk I’m willing to take, though it depends on your situation. (For a sibling – I can take the heat of them being mad at me. A co-worker – I probably wouldn’t say anything, to be honest).

    So, perhaps a way to bring it up to them: “Sibling, I just had to call you b/c, I know this sounds weird, but I was up late last night worried about Nephew. I was reading the news and saw this article about kids w/developmental delays and it made me gasp. It made me so sad b/c it was mentioning X,Y,Z which I’ve seen Nephew do, and oh my goodness Sibling, it just made me so worried for him. It just reminded me so much of Nephew. What do you think, can I send the article to you? I know I’m a worrywart but…what do you think??”

    –I.e., place the blame on yourself using “I” messages (“I was thinking, I was feeling”) and NOT on Sibling or Nephew. If they’re really not receptive, then maybe you just come off as a worrywart or “crazy ole sister” and they won’t have so much anger at you. This also provides them with a way to ‘save face’ and say “well, I don’t think anything is wrong, but since you’re so concerned, maybe we’ll take him to the doc this week/maybe I’ll ask our doctor about that article.” You don’t want them to come out of the conversation feeling attacked as a bad parent, etc – that doesn’t help anyone.

    (Additional note: You should already have a helpful article pulled up to send to them, obvs).

    Best of luck to you and your heart is in the right place.

  • Anon

    March 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    What a timely post. Just this week I had a similar issue. I have a B.S. in Communication Disorders (went on to get a graduate degree in a related field), and I can tell when there are OBVIOUS speech/language delays. Like my nephew has. He just turned 4 and his speech is VERY difficult to understand. I have suspected delays for a couple of years now, but I felt like, as the older sister, I could not mention it due to my brother/sis-in-law getting very defensive about it and accusing me of butting in. So I have kept my mouth shut.
    Fast forward to this week, my brother called me and asked what the proper avenues were to get his speech tested because they have concerns. I was happy to give him all of the information I could to get him on his way to getting my nephew the kind of treatment he needs. I just had to be patient (which is NOT one of my more well-polished virtues).

  • JCF

    March 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    I would personally say something, if you aren’t already aware of any steps they are currently taking to deal with the issues your nephew seems to have. I agree with previous commenters that maybe you should just speak with your sibling (or your husband to his sibling if that is the relationship here) frankly about your worries.

    I know that different people will react differently, but I would want to hear lovingly presented concerns from a caring family member (which is way different from some jerk at the playground putting their two cents in). In fact, I have several close friends and family members who are teachers (early childhood, special ed, etc.) and speech-language pathologists. I have told all of them in the past that I see them as great resources and experts in what they do and that I will gladly take their advice, solicited or not, if they see red flags with my kids. If it ever comes up, it will surely hurt to hear, but I’d rather hear it than let time go by and hear later from people that they saw red flags beforehand.

  • Rachael

    March 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I know I would definitely want someone to say something to me! I tend to have “Oh mah garsh isn’t my son just BRILLIANT!” blinders on at times. It’s hard to look outside of that.

    Even if they get pissy and offended, perhaps later on they bring it up with a trusted person and jokingly say “Yeah, psh, can you believe what my nagging sister said!? That Nephew has issues!? Crazy, huh?” and it gives ANOTHER concerned adult a chance to say, “Well, actually…”

    I say go for it.

  • Tara

    March 11, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Being that there has been acknowledgment of an issue in the past (by the parents), it might be a tiny bit easier to bring up. I know for me (who would very possibly jump down a friend or sibling’s throat for questioning my ability to adequately raise my own child), it would be best taken in question form. First the question as to where I feel my child’s development is at now. Then the questions regarding whether or not I had considered a certain underlying cause or particular solution. I am not and would not be so oblivious as to believe that my friend or sibling simply wanted my thoughts, but I’d appreciate them not bombarding a sensitive subject by shoving theirs down my throat.

  • Michele

    March 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    I have a really tight knit family, and we ran into this issue with one of my cousins a few years ago. There was something “off” about one of her daughters- she rarely turned to your voice or loud noises, her communication was more babble than speech, and she would fly off the handle at times if you just touched her arm. Many of us in the family are educators; two of my aunts, teachers, mentioned that she should probably be tested. That was met with resistance and resentment, and the implication that my cousin was doing something wrong. It wasn’t until the preschool told her that they would not be able to work with her daughter until she was able to stay in the classroom and not run off that things clicked in (that was 2 years after the first “suggestion”). She was put into occupational therapy at age 5, and a final diagnosis of SPD (sensory processing disorder) at age 6, but no indications of autism. Part of me wonders if everyone had kept their mouth shut until my cousin made mention of something if that would have gotten her daughter tested earlier. That’s what would make me nervous about saying anything unless approached first.

  • professormama

    March 13, 2011 at 1:35 am

    I used to work in daycare/preschools, and the general rule at anywhere NAEYC accredited will require children to be potty trained and out of diaper to be in a 4 year old classroom.  This is never an issue because most children reach this milestone between 2.5 and 3 years old.  Additionally parents of 3 year old children who are unable to communicate would be as a rule advised to have the child tested for hearing and speech/developmental delays.  I’d guess this child is at home with a parent who does not realize how delayed the child is. I have worked with many bilingual children who do tend to speak somewhat later, but still by 3 years, and then it is all in a rush of two languages and many words being used.  While talking to the parents may create tension or temporarily damage you relationship, it’s absolutely in the best interest of all parties long term. If they cannot immediately appreciate your concern, they will in time.  My brother is deaf in one ear and spoke very little until he had speech therapy, his language skills developed very fast, and he was lucky to not fall behind as the issue was addressed in preschool.  Best of luck.

  • Amy

    March 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I did this once, when some very dear friends brought their daughter to our house and at 3 years old she could only speak a couple of words and screeched and pointed when she wanted something.
    I sent the parents an email basically saying that I was probably paranoid but due to seeing a speech therapist ourselves (four our younger daughter who was a preemie) I’d noticed that their daughter might have a delay. I then went on to say that they were great parents and probably had this covered already but I thought I’d mention it just in case. They replied (after a couple of days) that they had talked to their ped about it and he wasn’t worried. I never brought it up again and neither did they. Their daughter is a much better talker now with no intervention.
    Doing this in an email helped because if they were defensive or mad they could get it together before responding. Plus I could really make sure what I was saying was thought out rather than blurting out something that might offend them.
    It was awkward and uncomfortable to bring this up but I call it being a good friend. There are times when the benefits of speaking up outweigh the possibly difficult conversation.

  • Katie S.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    If this were one of my siblings, I would say something. Something really easy, like, “Hey, what ever happened with the follow up from that child psych? Did you ever get Nephew re-checked since he hasn’t really caught up yet?” Very nonchalant. 

    If it were my SIL? Well, we suspect both her kids are also delayed and the slightest mention of them being maybe slightly not perfect is met with insane anger and argument. So. Yeah. Depends on the sibling, and the relationship.

  • Kate

    March 17, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I agree with the suggestions to bring it up sort of casually to start and see how it goes from there. If it doesn’t go well and he’s scheduled to go to kindergarten in the fall it’s probably not worth making a huge deal out of because the teachers will notice and bring it up (we could spot 90% of the kids with undiagnosed issues at orientation). If nothing else I can guarantee that a kindergartener in diapers is not going to be acceptable. I spent 5 years working with special needs kindergarteners and even our most severely disabled kids were out of diapers (except in the rare case where they were too physically disabled and then they had individual aids). The kids who were just too delayed to potty train by 5 were too delayed for a mainstream classroom. 

    Do bring it up with them though because even if they blow it off it will help lessen the shock when the school system does.