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SocializingReciprocal Conversations

Is Your Child Struggling to Have a Back-and-Forth Conversation?

Two young girls having a conversation.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 21 Apr 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What are Conversation Skills in Childhood?

Conversation skills in childhood include carrying on a back-and-forth conversation with a partner, making comments, asking questions, and providing answers on the topic being discussed. 

A back-and-forth conversation includes multiple exchanges of asking questions, answering questions, and building on each other’s comments to show interest. This process involves knowing what to say next and includes appropriate body language. 

If reciprocal conversation is a concern, your child may struggle to share information, listen to others, or stay on topic. It may be hard for them to meet new people and to read or express appropriate nonverbal communication. 

Reciprocal conversation goes beyond just smiling and answering questions. A child must offer some information not directly asked for and ask for or leave space for comments and information from others.

Symptoms of Lack of Conversation Skills In Childhood 

  • One-sided conversations: your child often only talks about topics that interest them, for example, sharing at length about their favorite character 
  • Not noticing when the listener is bored: you notice your child mainly talks about subjects that interest them, your child does not notice that the listener is no longer interested in their subject 
  • Acts like a little professor: your child shares a monologue, providing lectures about outer space, trains, climate, or any other subject that is of interest to them
  • Ignores you in conversation: your child may respond with an awkward “oh” 
  • Asks rapid-fire questions: your child asks questions but does not pause to hear the answer
  • Talking but not listening: engaging in conversation but not listening to what the conversation partner is saying and often failing to ask questions of them or give them a chance to talk
  • Ask questions or starts conversations that are too personal: your child struggles to understand that a question is not appropriate for the situation or tells an almost stranger your personal details 
  • Struggles with being reciprocal:  your child has trouble sharing information, listening to what others have to say, staying on topic, and asking relevant questions
  • Trouble with nonverbal cues or expression: your child is not sure when to smile, make eye contact or gesture, stands too close or too far, or cannot read these cues in others
  • Not able to stay on topic: your child constantly returns to topics of personal interest 
  • You feel like an audience member in conversation: when talking with your child, you do not feel like a participant in your child’s conversation 

What Age-Appropriate Conversation Skills Look Like in Childhood 

During typical social development, we should see children exchanging information, staying on topic, asking questions of one another, and listening to the answers. Children should be able to engage in a conversation that is appropriate. For example, they should discuss dolls with a friend who likes dolls and soccer with someone on the same team.

Your child should be able to ask you about your day and know basic facts about family members. “Sally loves pizza,” and “Johnny is scared of spiders.” Children should be able to answer questions about the school day like “who did you sit with at lunch” without saying “I don’t know” or giving you a blank stare.

Clinically, reciprocal conversation should continue to become more sophisticated as a child gets older. 

Examples of social reciprocity skills 

  • sharing information
  • listening to others
  • staying on topic
  • maintaining a back-and-forth social interaction
  • social perspective-taking – understanding the feelings and preferences of others
  • reading nonverbal cues and knowing when to stop talking and ask a question
  • observing when a conversation partner is bored, and it is time to change the subject

Children should begin to make friends and have close friends who play together frequently, talk to each other online or via the phone and share common interests.

In toddlers and preschool ages, children may begin to share information. They may have simple exchanges like, “I have a baby sister,” or “I have a baby brother named Scott.”

In kindergarten, children should have the ability to share information about themselves and answer questions. They may be less savvy at reading others and might talk too much or too little or say offensive things.

By mid-grade school, children should be able to discern what conversation topics are okay and what things may be embarrassing or private [4].

Late elementary and middle school, children and teens start to share confidences with one another, converse at a higher level about feelings, and identify which friends serve which roles in their lives [3]. For example, a child might think, “John is a great listener,” “Sam knows everything about basketball,” or “Jenny is the person to talk to if I’m worried about social studies.”

Causes of Lack of Conversation Skills in Childhood

Language Disorder: poor conversational reciprocity means difficulty understanding how to share information in a back-and-forth manner.  This conversation challenge could be due to a language disorder such as Expressive Language Disorder, Receptive Language Disorder, or Pragmatic Language Disorder.

Autism: children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with conversational reciprocity. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a child may fail to let another person get in a word. They may give a lecture about the Hubble Telescope or tell you every detail about their pet dog. When you say in turn, “Oh, I have some pets,” this statement is met with no response, a change of subject, or an awkward “(long pause) Oh. Cool.”

Children with autism tend to have challenges with flexible conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging [1]. They can have a hard time reading others because they’re not paying attention to other people’s nonverbal cues. Often, children with ASD don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see if the conversation partner is bored [1]. Also, children with ASD tend to have restricted interests. They really enjoy talking about a certain subject, which may quickly bore another child who doesn’t share that interest.

ADHD: inattention associated with ADHD could also lead to some of these challenges because failing to pay attention to the other person impacts the quality of conversation. Kids with ADHD can be like a bull-in-a-china-shop. They may accidentally interrupt others or bump into them, which can impact social skills significantly.

What to Do about Lack of Conversation Skills in Childhood

  1. DO practice conversation skills with your child: write down on an index card conversation topics.  
  • Comment, pause, wait for the other person to comment or ask a question, respond, comment, or ask a question. You could always set a watch to vibrate every minute or so that would signal to your child to ask the other person a question when they feel the buzz.
  1. DO discuss with your child which friends like which subjects: such as video games, sports, art, or music. Help your child determine what their common interests are with each friend. This way, you can brainstorm conversation topics that would be good for each friend.
  2. Finally, DO set up supervised play dates and outings. Give your child opportunities to get together with one other child so that they can practice. During these playdates, stay close by and offer your child suggestions.
  • You might say, “Susie said she likes soccer. Why don’t you show her your new soccer ball?” Or, “Joe said he got first place in the swim meet. You might want to ask him about it.”

When to Seek Help for Conversation Skills Issues

Poor social reciprocity can be a sign of a disability such as Autism or ADHD. If you suspect your child may have one of these disabilities, it is worthwhile to get an evaluation and to pursue associated therapies.

Professional Resources for Conversation Skills Issues in Childhood 

  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
  • Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective taking and social skills and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety
  • ABA Therapist: to provide Applied Behavior Analysis using principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to address social skills, conversation, and social perspective-taking
  • Speech and Language Pathologist: to provide speech and/or language support. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services

Similar Conditions to Poor Conversation Skills in Childhood

  • Social Skills: children with poor social skills may lead to difficulties with conversations
  • Attention: children with attention problems may have trouble following along in a conversation [5]
  • Repetitive Behavior, Perseverating, Rigidity, and Rigid Behavior: children with restricted patterns of behavior or interests may struggle with conversations 
  • Pragmatic Language: children who do not understand social language may struggle with conversations
  • Receptive Language: children with poor comprehension skills may have difficulty with conversations

References on Conversation Skills in Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

[3] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.

[4] Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.

[5] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.

Book Resources on Conversation Skills in Childhood

Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.

Children’s books on social skills

Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).

Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).

Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.

Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.

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