Can’t Understand Your Child? What You Can Do to Help

Your beloved child is finally talking! But wait… what are they saying?

It is normal to not fully understand your child during their early years. It’s part of their development process, but you might be wondering what exactly is happening and how you can help.

It can be frustrating, but parental support is crucial for this phase of language learning. So here are some pointers for this process and how to understand your child better. 

We’ll also talk about when to raise flags to your speech language pathologist, and what to do to help them be a better young speaker.

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Should I Be Concerned?

As your child is growing up, they will experience more things and will often try to tell you about it. But you’ll find some mispronounced words or poor sentence structures. Some examples may include letter replacement (“wittle” instead of “little”) or omitting the end consonants (“ca” instead of “cat”).

It’s important not to panic or take it as a sign of speech or language delay. Difficulty with language is not uncommon for children under the age of 3. They may only be developing their speaking skills through phonological processes.

Your child’s brain and the coordination of speech sounds are at work when they try to simplify sounds. This mispronunciation is part of honing their language skills as oral motor abilities (especially mouth, lip and tongue) are developed. Since they are not yet fully capable of particular oral movements, they use simpler versions of sounds instead.

As you can see, the speech development grows along with their oral motor skills, so it will take time. You should be able to estimate your child’s progress when an unfamiliar listener understands some sentences at their age, namely:

  • When your child reaches 2 years old, they should be able to understand around 50% to 75% of what your child is saying.
  • At age 3, they should be able to understand at least 75% of what your child is saying.
  • At age 4, they should be able to understand at least 90% of what they say, even though their pronunciation is not yet perfectly clear.

We use ‘unfamiliar listener’ as a benchmark to set a higher standard to these abilities. It may be easier for you or whoever is taking care of your child to understand what they are saying compared to someone unfamiliar to them.

These ‘wrong’ sounds will most likely fade as your child develops more refined oral skills to articulate more clearly. You can find some of the most common speech patterns (phonological processes) on the American Speech Hearing Association (ASHA) website. They also have a quick resource for the estimated age of elimination, or when they should start to pick-up the correct sounds to produce.

Articulation is something that should naturally mature. If the frequency is more than what is estimated above don’t hesitate to reach out to a speech language pathologist. It’s best to seek help through speech therapy early to improve their language capabilities before reaching school age and prevent further language delay.

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What You Can Do to Understand Your Child

During these processes, you might have a frustrating time especially as your child shares their thoughts to you. It will take some patience, but your support will be essential for your child as they go through this development stage.

There are a few things that you can do to help your child out, namely:

  • Don’t stress them out.
  • Let them speak.
  • Repeat and inquire.
  • Practice difficult words with them.
  • Enunciate words correctly.

Let’s discuss what you need to remember for those steps.

Don’t Stress Them Out

If you’re extremely unsure of what they just said, don’t take out your frustration on your child. It is often the case that they are also frustrated from the miscommunication, and may give up on their efforts to speak.

You can instead help your child clarify what they just said. Watch what they are doing, looking at, or even their facial expression as these are also means of communication. 

If they are very young, you can encourage them to use other means to answer, such as using their fingers for numerical questions like, “How old are you?”. If your child is a little older, you can ask them nicely to use their words instead.

Try to also frame it as your confusion and that you didn’t hear them well. Telling them that they are not saying things correctly will only put a blame on them and they will lose their self confidence.

Let Them Speak

When you ask your child a question or ask them to respond to something, be patient and wait for them to answer. You may feel like you need to rush them into responding, don’t.

The same goes for when friends or family members did not understand them. Ask your child to repeat what they said, because the person they are speaking to did not hear them properly. 

You might be tempted to answer on their behalf, but it would be better to let them answer. If you answer for them, they may become shy and dependent on you to answer when someone asks them a question instead of answering it themselves.

Repeat and Inquire

Try to pick up on some of their words and repeat what they are saying back to them as you understand it. Say it in the form of an inquiry or question. This way, they are prompted to confirm or try again if it’s not right.

For example, some kids have a tendency to cut off the last consonant of words, such as “cuh” for “cup”. If you don’t get what they mean, you can ask again and follow up with a guess: “Cuh? Do you mean cup?”. Make sure that you enunciate the word well so that they can learn how to say it with correct sounds next time.

Practice Difficult Sounds/Words Together

Learning sounds doesn’t always have to be bound to talking around the house. Different noises can also be explored and experimented on during playtime. You can also use animal noises that contain your target consonant or vowel sounds.

Focusing on specific speech sounds can help as well. Try to look for items or words that contain the target sounds and make up sentences to help your child practice.

Enunciate Words Carefully

When you are speaking to your child, be as clear as possible when you speak. Whenever they mispronounce anything, repeat the word with the correct pronunciation. This modeling of proper articulation will help them greatly.

It also helps to exaggerate sounds. As much as possible try to face them and get them to pay attention to how your mouth, lips, tongue and teeth are moving as you say the words.

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Going through your child’s phonological process is one that will take a lot of patience. But it can get rewarding when they reach the age where they finally get to articulate words correctly.

If you still understand them less than you should be able to, you may need to contact a speech language pathologist. Apheleia Speech can help you understand your child’s personal speech progress and assess if they have a language delay. Get started by booking a free consultation to get a quick assessment of their development.

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Lauren Templeton Owner of Apheleia Speech

Lauren Templeton

Founder & Speech-Language Pathologist

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