Refusing to Speak

Hi Faith,
My friend just turned me onto your blog and the timing couldn’t be better! I have a 16 month old daughter that has stopped talking! She will grunt and/or whine instead. She said her first word at around 1 year old and added another 5 or 6 words to her vocabulary within the next month or two. But at about 14 months, she stopped talking. She still makes animal sounds – cat meow, dog bark, cow moo– and will say the word ‘No’ when she’s REALLY upset (fortunately very rarely). But otherwise everything she points to or requests is coupled with a grunt or whine. When she first stopped talking i thought it may be a phase or that she was teething and that it may hurt her to talk. We realized that we were enabling her so we’ve made an effort to stop rewarding the grunting/whining but that often ends in a meltdown when she doesn’t get what she wants. Needless to say, we’re feeling a little frustrated around here. Help!

Hi Mama,

Thanks for writing! My first instinct is to say ‘don’t worry’ about your little one. Kids often regress in some way when they’re getting ready to make a big developmental leap (not necessarily a verbal leap–could be physical, cognitive, etc.), and 16 months is still quite young for regular talking. So, my suggestion is to back off, and simply say for her what you wish she were saying. If she is trying to do something and it frustrates her, you say, “Help please!” before helping her. Her cup is empty and she grunts, and you say, “More please!” before you go to get her more. Say it all in exactly the tone of voice you wish she were using. Children are HIGHLY imitative, so if you’re getting into a power struggle and digging in your heels, all you’re showing her is how to dig in her heels. If you say exactly what you wish she were saying, every time, my bet is that in 2-6 weeks she’ll suddenly start saying it.

That being said, I’m not a pediatrician, so if you feel like something is really wrong, it might be worth getting her checked out. But if it feels like she’s ‘just being stubborn,’ then try the technique I outlined. The ‘trick’ to stubborn kids is to give them as little practice saying ‘no’ to you as possible. This does not mean not having clear boundaries, it means working with their behavior to get them to do what you’re asking (I will have to write a blog post on that!). In this case, you’re doing her talking for her, confident that she’s ‘learning’ to do it, and will do it. Much different from forcing her, and much more likely to have the effects you want.

Hope this helps; good luck!

Warmly, ~Miss Faith

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