Both of Catherine Labate’s children have always been very verbal. What started out as “crib talk” in infancy grew into animated conversations with dolls and toys by the time they were toddlers, and excitedly whispered monologues when they became preschoolers. Now that they’re in school, Labate’s four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter still talk themselves through puzzles or even practise what they’re going to say in class the next day. The Toronto mom didn’t give it a second thought until other parents pointed out that their kids weren’t quite as loquacious.
According to child psychologists, it’s common for young kids to talk aloud to themselves as they go about their day—and it shouldn’t be judged as being weird or negative in any way. Typically, this “self-talk” peaks between the ages of three and five, but can persist for longer. Still, parents are often worried.
“Children are exploring the world and exercising language, much in the same way that toddlers exercise walking,” says Ester Cole, a Toronto psychologist. “This is their role-playing; they’re exploring relationships and they’re also guiding themselves as they do certain things.”
You might find your kid talking to themselves while putting on their shoes, narrating experiences they had during the day in the stroller or projecting their feelings onto their stuffed animals before bed. “They might say things like, ‘Don’t feel scared of the dark. It’s OK—I’m going to hug you,’” says Cole. “They’re likely mimicking something a caregiver has said to them.”
“Private speech [defined] can be used as insight into children’s self-regulation, their motivation, their thoughts and their emotions or strategies,” says Kimberly Day, a private speech researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the University of West Florida. Her studies on private speech among toddlers and preschoolers show that kids who talk themselves through tasks may be better at controlling their behaviour and emotions during difficult activities.
Similarly, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who studied private speech in the early 20th century, saw it as the transition between social and “inner” speech. Adam Winsler, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, found that five-year-olds performed better on motor tasks when they talked out loud to themselves (either spontaneously or when told to do so) than when they were silent.
Experts say you shouldn’t try to stifle private speech, as it helps kids with their emotional and intellectual development. “Play and learning occur simultaneously,” says Cole. “If you see a three-year-old talking to their stuffed animals and using role-playing, and you say, ‘Why are you talking to your dinosaur? It’s not a real person,’ that can be a confusing message.” The alternative, says Cole, is to playfully respond in a way that gradually teaches the child the difference between what’s real and imaginary. “Engage in the role-playing by saying something like, ‘Shall we tell the dolly it’s time for us to go to bed?’”
A 2018 study by Day showed that kids used less private speech when their parents were overly directive and sensitive in terms of structuring their play. Cole says the use of self-talk also comes down to your kid’s personality. Then there’s how expressive you are as a parent and how much your child gets to interact with others versus having to entertain themselves.
While it’s been reported that children with certain behavioural issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, tend to talk to themselves more than others, talking aloud to yourself isn’t necessarily anything to be concerned about on its own. Kids will most likely grow out of it, says Cole, especially when the messages they receive in school group situations are to be quiet while learning and observing, and to wait their turn to speak.
But, if talking to themselves is suddenly happening more frequently, is triggered by a traumatic event—say, the death of a beloved pet—or is causing the child to be socially isolated during free play, it’s a good idea to follow up with a family doctor or psychologist. The doctor may try to decipher whether the child is feeling excluded or rejected, or simply not getting enough reciprocal communication from their caregivers or peers.
Interestingly, many adults problem-solve or work through tasks by talking aloud to themselves, notes Cole. It can be an effective tool regardless of your age, she says. “I was never concerned about it,” says Labate about her kids’ non-stop chattering. “My parents were both teachers and always instilled in us that an active imagination is a good thing.”