Why can’t I understand my child?
It can be really challenging for everyone when your child is difficult to understand. It can impact their relationship with you, friends and family. What should be a straightforward interaction turns into a full breakdown where both you and your child are frustrated. You may even be left worrying what it’s like for your child to communicate when you aren’t around… getting their needs met at daycare, making friends, and even succeeding at school.
Here is one of the top reasons why your child may be difficult to understand, and our most helpful tips for overcoming the challenge. Keep in mind, these are general strategies; it is always recommended that you see a speech pathologist for ongoing concerns with communication development. They are highly trained experts for improving communication skills who can provide you with a plan specifically tailored to help your child.
So… why can’t I understand my child?
The most common reason is mispronunciation of speech sounds. Speech sounds are the way we use the muscles of our mouths to shape movements into specific sounds (e.g. bottom lip under our teeth for /f/ or tongue up at the back for /g/). It takes time to learn how to make these sounds; no one is born knowing how to do it perfectly. It can be common for children under the age of 3 to be difficult to understand, particularly by strangers.
If you are trying to work out if there is a problem, a good place to start is by knowing what is typical during sound development. Here are some general guidelines for the ages specific sounds develop:
- 2-3 years old: /p, b, m, d, n, h, t, k, g, w, ng, f, y/
- 4 years old: /l, j, ch, s, v, sh, z/
- 5 years old: /r/
- 6+ years old: /th/
It’s also important to think about how much you can understand your child overall, not just the specific speech sounds. This is called your child’s level of “intelligibility”. When speaking in short sentences, a non-familiar person should be able to understand your child:
- 3 years old: approximately 40.9% of the time
- 4 years old: approximately 68.9% of the time
- 5 years old: approximately 85% of the time
- 6 years old: approximately 95% of the time
By the time your child is about to start school, they should produce most sounds correctly and be understood most of the time by a new person.
My child sounds different… what can I do?
The first step is figuring out why! Is there anything that could be contributing to your child’s speech sound difficulty? We recommend a referral for a hearing screening to make sure your child’s hearing is developing as expected, as this can affect your child’s ability to hear and produce sounds.
Some general strategies you can use at home are:
- Give your child enough time to express their thoughts and ideas to reduce frustration and allow them to get their message across.
- If you are having difficulty understanding your child, ask them if they can show you what they are talking about to prevent frustration.
- Avoid correcting errors in your child’s speech during conversation, particularly in front of other children. Instead, provide a model by repeating it back to them and emphasising the correct production (e.g. if your child says ‘dun’ for ‘sun’, you could say “yes it’s a sun”).
- When giving a model, get down on your child’s level so they can watch your mouth.
- Don’t put a lot of pressure on your child to say the word correctly and avoid getting frustrated if they can’t do it. They may not be able to physically say the word yet, give them time.
What do I do if my child isn’t improving?
These strategies are general advice. The best thing you can do is see a speech pathologist for a consult to find out how they can help, especially if you see:
- Your child has persistent difficulties
- They are getting frustrated or withdrawing
- They are not meeting their communication milestones
- You want some peace of mind or a tailored plan for your child
Seeing a speech pathologist will likely include a conversation to find out your concerns, an assessment with your child to formally look at the skills they have and the ones they need support with, then a discussion about recommendations for ongoing support (speech therapy for kids or monitoring).
The research tells us the best thing you can do is get support for communication difficulties early (early intervention). This means that if therapy is needed, the best time to start is as soon as possible to reduce the long term impacts of having ongoing communication difficulties. This is particularly important in the preschool years to prepare your child for school. The speaking skills they learn and master in the years before school help them learn to read and write!