The old adage “children should be seen and not heard” is just that, an old adage. But for some parents whose children talk non-stop from morning to night, there’s a certain wistfulness to the phrase. Especially when the teacher sends home a note that says Gianni’s talking is disrupting the classroom, or when he tells the woman in the grocery store line about your argument with your spouse the night before. All parents encourage their children to express themselves, but when is it too much? And how do you get your little chatterbox to stop, step back, and listen?
It sounds like a very simple problem, says Gary Direnfeld, a social worker in Dundas, Ont. But parents need to “peel back the layers” of what’s going on and determine what’s behind the child’s need to talk. “Is this a child who is starved for attention because no one listens to him? Is it just a sneaky way of misbehaving? Or is there something going on, biologically, in the child’s brain? Our frontal lobes control our brakes — is there something happening neurologically so the brakes aren’t working?” Parents who assume the cause is behavioural, instead of biological, and punish the child accordingly, risk exacerbating the problem.
Developmentally, children start to ask a lot of questions somewhere around age three or four. “They start to use that dreaded three-letter word — ‘why’ — and they can’t be satiated. This is normal developmental behaviour,” says Gary. But by age five, they typically master the social conventions of a conversation: taking turns talking and listening. If by age seven or eight the child is still monopolizing most conversations, interrupting, and talking over people, it can do more than irritate his parents; it can be disastrous both socially and academically. “It can make them a pariah among their peers, frustrate the teacher, and leave all adults managing the child out of anger and frustration.”
When should parents be concerned? “It becomes an issue when the usual methods of parenting don’t work. If you’ve spoken to the child, scolded the child, tried to educate the child, and the behaviour persists, there may be something else going on. That’s when a consultation with a behaviour expert would be reasonable.”
If there’s not an underlying health reason, sit down with your child and have an honest discussion about his excessive talking and come up with a plan to alert him when it’s happening. A physical or visual signal (like you placing your hand on his back or silently putting a finger over your lips) can help him become aware of when he is monopolizing conversation or interrupting people. A system of rewards and consequences can also be useful, and be prepared to give lots of positive feedback when he is showing restraint.
And remember, when he’s a tight-lipped teenager you’ll probably look back wistfully at the years when you couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Could endless chatter mean something else?
Some chatterboxes are just being cheeky. But for other kids who are non-stop talkers, there may be an underlying neurological problem:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Kids with ADHD do lots of things in excess: move, fidget, sing, hum, and yes, talk. Their lack of impulse control can make it difficult for them not to interrupt or blurt out inappropriate things.
- Aspergers Syndrome: People with this autism spectrum disorder have difficulty picking up on social cues; they may monopolize conversations and not even realize that their friend is uncomfortable, frustrated or eager to get away.
- Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Caused by deficiencies in right brain function, kids with this disorder are highly verbal, with very mature vocabularies, good memory skills and early reading ability. This verbosity is sometimes referred to as “cocktail party speech,” because they may say a lot, but the content may have very little substance.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.