Your kid is a chatterbug — a verbose little bundle of energy — but suddenly, Junior isn't speaking up so much. Or perhaps, your little princess is still chatty but only on her terms. Even if your child isn't a "Chatty Carl or Cathy" but he or she has out of nowhere turned down the volume on the verbal frequency, something is up. Why is your kid staying mum? Well, there are no guaranteed answers here, but read on to see if any of these situations could apply to your little one, and what you can do to get your kiddo talking again.
Divorce and Fighting
My child is a chatterbug, but when her father and I separated, her chatting changed. She will happily talk away a mile a minute, but then randomly when you ask her a question, she clams up. It could be the most benign of questions — "What do you want for dinner?" to the more emotional, "Are you sad?" — and yet my girl will refuse to speak up. Trust me, she hears her dad, me, or whomever is asking her, but for whatever reason, she has decided to zip her lips at that precise moment. This all came about when my ex and I separated. If you and your partner are fighting, getting a divorce, or trying out a trial separation, your child may decide to put on a silent strike. It's upsetting for a child to lose the family he or she knows or feel marital stress in the house, and so not talking is a way of controlling a situation that your kid has no say in! Your child might also start to have accidents or refuse to eat in this case as well.
What can you do? Well, I highly suggest play therapy, as play therapy is a safe area for kids to explore how they feel, especially when dealing with family changes. Getting angry with your child for not speaking isn't going to make him or her talk. I know for my ex and me, it's very frustrating, so sometimes if it's a question that she must answer like, "What do you want to eat for dinner?" we will press her, or if she refuses to answer, make the choice ourselves. If it's a heavy question, we often back off. For example, whenever I would call my daughter to say good night when she's at her dad's, she would often refuse to talk and sometimes she would do the same thing for her dad when she was with me. Through therapy, we learned that me calling makes her sad because it reminds her I am not with her. I obviously still call her, but we try to use Skype more than the phone because she responds better to seeing me and her dad rather than just hearing our voices.
The summary? We pick when to press her for a response or not and provide her with a safe place to learn how to express her feelings in a positive way. So far, we are seeing a positive difference.
Is there a new baby brother or sister in the house? It's a joy for your child, but it's also hard to learn to share the spotlight. Plus, the new baby brings on added stress: tired parents, busy parents, potentially new babysitters, less playdates, less interaction with the other kids, and colder dinners! A child may decide that keeping quiet is a good way to handle the changes brought up by a new sibling and bring the attention back to him or herself.
What can you do? Since you can't send the new baby packing (and would you want to?), try these tactics to help your little one adjust to sharing the stage.
- Utilize any and all childcare help to get in even just an hour of alone time for the two of you. Your big kid needs you as much as the baby does.
- Incorporate your big sibling as a helper. Can he or she amuse the baby while you cook? Can she fold the burp cloths for you? Can he help wash baby teethers or sing songs to soothe the new little one? Make your older kids feel absolutely necessary to the baby's routine, and they will start to feel special.
- Acknowledge that your fatigue has probably made you grumpier than you normally would be. Your child may be too young to comprehend, but acknowledging your child's frustrations goes a long way.
- Be patient! This will pass.
When kids get picked on, they're not always so apt to tell Mom and Dad what's happening. For a whole year during my middle school years, I was tormented and rarely said one peep about it to my mom, who I usually told everything. Even preschool-aged children who are known for being brutally frank about everything ("Hey, look at that fat person" — how many 3-year-olds do you know have announced that?) may be hesitant to say something about a classroom bully. And if your child does tell you about a little old meanie, he still might decide to keep quiet from time to time.
First things first. Teach your child how to walk away from a bully and choose another friend. Even when my daughter was just 2, we talked about this. Obviously the older a child is, the easier it is for her to enact this, but talking about how to ignore and walk away from mean behavior is a crucial lifelong lesson, since bullies come in all ages and shapes. Most bullies won't attack a disinterested or unaffected party.
Secondly, talk to the teacher and if necessary, the parents. This can be an issue if your child is old enough and afraid of the consequences of you speaking up. Only you as the parent can decide if you should let the kids "work it out" or intervene. If your child has become mum over bullying, I think it's a strong indicator that the problem is serious, and you should intervene.
Abuse of any kind whether sexual, emotional, or physical can make anyone shut down. If you have any suspicions at all and find your talkative child unbearably mute, it's time to gather up trusted teachers, family, and a professional to take serious steps. It's that simple. Don't second-guess or question yourself: if your gut says something is wrong, listen.
For Control, Fun, or Just Because!
A child may simply stop talking for attention and control. However, if your child is seeking attention and control, you need to ask why. Are you not spending enough time with your child? Are you distracted or on the phone a lot? Perhaps it's your spouse who is too busy or working out of the home too much, and your child is trying to get attention the negative way.
Even still, your kid could be simply ignoring you just for fun or because he doesn't want to answer because he's too busy playing! I can't tell you how many times my child has pretended not to hear me just because she doesn't want to leave the park or go to the potty.
In order to get the ball back in your court, first see — is it because you're too busy lately or because your child doesn't want to answer? If it's the former reason, try to find a way to squeeze in some quality time. Since I share my child with my ex-husband, sometimes if I haven't seen her in a while, we will cosleep. If it's because of the latter reason like Princess doesn't want to leave the park, acknowledge her feelings, offer empathy, and give her another five minutes, but be sure to set off a warning as the time ticks down. Acknowledge, offer empathy, give a warning. If that doesn't work, then it's time for a consequence.
Keep in mind that like all bad stages and phases, this too shall pass, although it is frustrating. If, however, your child starts to go almost totally mute, seek the advice of a medical professional right away!