The chatty child

Straight talk on life with a very verbal kid.

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Nathan Leclercq said his first word at nine months (“fan”). Five years later, the Penticton, BC, boy is a champion chatterer, says his mom, Patricia.

“He talks and talks. Half the time he doesn’t know what he’s going to say. He’ll go, ‘Mom, can I tell you something?’ ‘Sure. What?’ ‘Ah…’ and he’s got to think it up! Sometimes we’ll be watching TV and he’ll say, ‘Mom, so what are they going to do next? What just happened? What’s going on?’ ‘Son, if you’re quiet, we can hear and then we’ll know.’ Sometimes I think, He’s got to stop eventually.”

If you have a chatty child in the family, it can feel like he never will.

Having a very verbal kid can make life easier — he can tell you what he needs or if something is bothering him. Still, being at the receiving end of a non-stop monologue can also be pretty draining. But, believe it or not, you can support your child’s need to verbally express himself while preserving a little sanity-saving silent time.

Why so talkative?

What’s behind your child’s stream of words? Sometimes it seems that every thought that zips through a kid’s brain pops out of his mouth.

“Children do think out loud until they’re about seven or eight (it’s part of the developmental process), although some children talk to themselves more, some talk less,” says Lana-Lee Hardacre, a professor of early childhood education at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. She explains that if your car is skidding, you might say, “I have to remember to turn in the direction I want to go,” but you say it in your head. Young children, by contrast, may say out loud what they’re thinking.

And that’s not a bad thing. Self-talk is positive, a step in eventually learning to problem-solve and develop inner thought and self-control. “They say things like ‘The truck is going up the hill. Now it’s going around the corner. Now it’s going fast.’ It’s like a play-by-play,” says Hardacre. “As your child gets to about seven or eight, he just thinks about it in his head without saying it.” It’s not necessary to be part of your child’s self-talk or respond, she adds. “You can tune it out because they don’t need an audience; they’re talking to themselves.”

But there’s more to chattiness than simply development. For some of us, it’s just our nature to talk a blue streak; other more silent types mull things over in their head. Think about how your child reacts to the world, suggests Jamie MacSwain, program coordinator at Chances Family Centre in Charlottetown, PEI. “If she’s had a long hard day, when she’s out of gas, what does she do? An extrovert likes to chat and be with other people — that’s how she recharges her batteries. An introvert is more inclined to need some away time to play by herself or curl up with a book.” Plus, girls and boys may have different levels of chattiness — it’s not just a stereotype. “Girls and women tend to process more out loud,” says Hardacre.

Finally, non-stop talking can sometimes be a child’s way to ask for an audience. “Children who feel they aren’t being noticed will find a way to get noticed,” explains Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais. “Talking incessantly is one way.” Of course, it’s not necessarily a way that helps a child fit in socially. As Desmarais points out, “People who monopolize conversations aren’t usually very popular.”

Learning to listen

So how can you coach your talkative child? Explain the importance of listening. By doing so, says Desmarais, you’re actually teaching empathy. “You can ask your child how he thinks it might feel for someone who was really excited to share something, but didn’t ever get a turn to talk.”

Leclercq is relieved that Nathan is able to to curb his chattiness while he’s at school. His teacher says he’s a great listener. But listening may be harder for other chatty children. To help them, Desmarais explains, “You might say something simple like ‘I know you have a lot to share and I want to hear about it, but it’s important that other people share their ideas and stories too.’”

We may feel guilty if we don’t appreciate the stream of talk: Shouldn’t we be interested in our kids’ thoughts? Desmarais suggests some balance. “Yes, we want to give children a voice and respect their opinions — we want to hear them. We don’t want to be squelching that intellect and excitement to share. But they don’t have the right to demand our attention all day long. If we give them constant attention, it’s saying it’s OK to demand the attention of others all the time — and it isn’t.”

Read on for some ways to gently curb the chatter.

Really listen. You can’t be fixated on your child all the time but, as MacSwain says, “children need to know they’re the focus of their mom’s and dad’s attention. A few minutes of really being there is worth hours of vague attention — not being engaged even though you’re there physically. Being fully present is a powerful thing for a child.”

Don’t undermine self-esteem. Desmarais urges parents to avoid comments such as “We’ve heard enough of you” or “You never stop talking.” A child who hears these messages over and over internalizes them and may feel inhibited in speaking his mind later in life.

Plan to parler. You’re making supper, dressing or trying to close the bathroom door, and your child is talking and following you. Hardacre suggests, “You might say, ‘That sounds like such an interesting story. When I finish this, we’ll sit down and talk about it.’ Give your child a time and a place. This lets her know that she’s going to have your undivided attention.” Hardacre adds that you can arrange this a day ahead: “‘On workdays we’ll have a good talk from 6 to 6:30 — or after you watch [a particular show] or after dinner.’ Pair it with something the child knows about, like a meal.”

Be prepared. A big long discussion about Lego during his aunt’s wedding ceremony? Maybe not. “Prevention!” urges MacSwain. “Work it out ahead of time.” He suggests saying to your child, “I know that it’s hard to sit for a long time and you want to tell me things, but during this time everyone has to be quiet. What would help you?” And then problem-solve. “If the child can help to come up with the solution, it’s more likely to be successful,” MacSwain says. “Maybe he can draw pictures and it’s OK to show you the pictures — it’s just not OK during that time to talk about them.”

Take a break. “It can be draining to have a child who talks non-stop,” MacSwain confirms. “Time alone for parents — and for children — is important. Set limits: Between this time and this time is Mom’s time.” He adds that some TV, used appropriately, isn’t a bad idea. You could also join a playgroup or sign your child up for an activity — this provides connections for him and a break for you. If you’re at your limit, MacSwain suggests, “you can respectfully say to your child, ‘I feel a little overwhelmed. I need some space or time alone.’ That’s wonderful modelling.”

Too much talk?

Lana-Lee Hardacre, a professor of early childhood education at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., suggests there are some situations when incessant chatter can signal issues that may need another look:

• Very bright children are often more verbal. Talking non-stop might be a signal that you have a gifted child who needs more challenge.

• An overly anxious child may talk a lot about fears and concerns or the friend who had something happen to her — in the way that some adults talk about an accident over and over as they try to work it out. (This could indicate a possible anxiety disorder that you should check out.)

• Children (in particular, little girls) who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be very talkative. Hardacre says, “Often we notice boys, but we don’t notice with girls because we just expect girls to talk a lot, and so they don’t get diagnosed early.”

If you have concerns about your child’s level of talkativeness, discuss it with her doctor or teacher.

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