What is Repetitive Language in Childhood?
Repetitive language in childhood is the tendency to use the same phrase or word over and over to the point that the meaning is lost.
As psychologists, we notice phrases like “it’s confounding” being said repeatedly during an assessment with a child. To test for this issue, we write the phrase down and note how many times the child says it. This measurement is important because repetitive language can signify a psychological or language disorder.
Children with repetitive language make it feel like déjà vu. As the listener, you start asking yourself, “didn’t I hear this before?” The child may feel they simply have to list every type of Toyota ever made before allowing the conversation to continue.
The dialogue might feel odd or “out of the blue” because the child’s comments do not quite fit in the conversation.
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Symptoms of Repetitive Language in Children
- Uses a unique word with frequency: your child may say “commonly” over and over in conversation. For example, “Well, commonly, we have dinner as a family,” or “Yes, I commonly see friends outside of school,” or, “We commonly visit a hiking trail on the weekends with my dog.” Here, the child uses a word like ‘commonly’ as filler to embellish sentences or statements.
- Brings made-up words into the conversation: your child may often use a made-up word without giving the context. For example, “I just felt goblyful yesterday when Serene told me the news.” Here, the listener must clarify what the child’s word or phrase means. The child has made up the word and is expecting peers or adults to make sense of it on their own.
- Repeats a word when excited: your child often repeats a word or phrase to express excitement. For example, “stupendous, stupendous, stupendous!” Here, you notice the repeated word is the only way the child can think to express a specific emotion.
- Echoes a common line or phrase of a movie: your child runs around the house saying the same thing over and over, like, “Speed, I am speed!”Here, the listener may find that the child’s phrasing becomes obsessive. In toddlers, this behavior is normal. Repetitive phrasing is unusual once a child is four or five years old.
- Repeated language sounds formal: your child repeats something unusually sophisticated for the child’s age. The child may start several statements with a term like “generally speaking.”Here, the repeated phrase is appropriate to the dialogue, but it is unusual in that it seems too mature for the child’s age.
- Echolalia: your child is repeating sounds and words that they hear someone else say like an echo. For example, “You should try your vegetables.” Here, the child just says back what the parent said, rather than spontaneously sharing their own thoughts or ideas.
Causes of Repetitive Language in Childhood
Autism spectrum disorder: a diagnosis of ASD includes social communication challenges and restricted or repetitive behaviors (RRB). Repetitive language is a common symptom of ASD. The reason kids with ASD repeat words is because they are unsure how to contribute to conversations. When diagnosing autism, psychologists look for repetitive language. This often subtle use of repetitive language can be a sign of autism often overlooked. Want to know if your child’s challenges are a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Cadey courses are taught by licensed psychologists and walk you through the symptoms of autism and how they may present in your child. Sign up today.
Language disorder: a diagnosis of expressive language disorder includes difficulty with fluent expression and communication. A child who has trouble expressing themselves or has a stuttering or fluency disorder may repeat themselves. These issues are much different from the ASD profile mentioned above because social difficulties are not the reason for the repeated words.
Intellectual disability: a diagnosis of an intellectual disability may include some trouble with communication because of verbal comprehension and processing speed challenges. When it is hard to understand and process language, sometimes children are more likely to repeat themselves or get stuck on certain words.
Head injury: a diagnosis of a head injury may result from a concussion after a car accident or collision on the athletic field. A child with a traumatic brain injury may have language and processing challenges that cause some repetitive words or phrases.
Schizophrenia: a diagnosis of schizophrenia is a very rare condition in children and teenagers. It is unlikely to be the cause of repetitive language; however, those with delusions and hallucinations will often have unclear or repetitive language.
What to Do about Repetitive Language in Childhood
To improve language and decrease your child’s tendency to repeat a word over and over, a parent can take these five essential steps.
- First, use and model language for your child. Encourage back and forth conversation on a variety of topics. Practice asking questions, answering questions, and sharing information back and forth. Vary activities and conversation topics at home. Try to introduce new things related to a current interest to expand on conversation topics.
- Second, before a playdate, practice specifically what topics your child may talk about and what to say. Help them come up with fun ideas about themselves to share with others. If your daughter is going to a birthday party with a bug theme, help her think about some fun bug facts she might share.
“Teach your child that it is important to do, play, and talk about something other than their own specific interest. Practice talking about friends’ interests. If your child is into cars and a friend is having a train-themed birthday party, practice talking about trains with your child before the party starts.”
- Third, get your child enrolled in social activities with low ‘social risk.’ Certain social activities do not require a lot of social skills or specific talents for participation. For example, try a Lego club, cooking class, robotics club, and swimming at the local pool. Find something that has team aspects but is not as competitive as a typical sport. Start with an activity with some structure but is about individual performance, such as a tumbling class or a painting class at the rec center. Practice what to talk about during these activities. If your child tends to get very stuck on certain interests, try to expand these activities into more areas. If your child likes Minecraft, try a robotics club. If she loves to make pancakes, go for a general baking class with other kids.
- Fourth, consider a social skills group. This may be facilitated by clinicians who are trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation as well as social interaction like playing games, talking about different topics, or working together to solve problems or puzzles.
- Fifth, provide breaks and downtime. Give your child time to talk about their favorite interests and outlets that focus on these. Every kid needs some time on their own, and that is okay. Provide a space for your child to talk about topics they like. For example, if your child wants to describe every single frame of the Mario Cart video game (true story!), take some time to listen. Give your child time to tell you why they like this topic so much. Let your child have time devoted to dinosaurs, tornados, or the Titanic if that is what keeps their interest. After some time to unwind, they may be more capable of participating in back-and-forth conversations with other children.
When to Seek Help for Repetitive Language
When repetitive language impacts your child’s communication or social skills, it is a good idea to seek help. A few repetitive phrases here and there are not likely to impact your child’s day-to-day life. If your child is repetitive to the point that conversations, playdates, and school activities are impacted, it will be important to seek help.
Professional Resources on Repetitive Language
- Testing psychologist: to conduct a comprehensive neuropsychological or psychological evaluation of language development, cognition, social skills, and behavior. This evaluation will help you obtain a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses and isolate areas to work on in therapy
- Speech and language pathologist: to provide therapy to work on your child’s functional language skills. They may also have a group for working on social language skills
- School psychologist: to understand how your child’s social skills impact their school performance and participation. If repetitive language is an issue, getting the school team involved is recommended to see if your child needs support through multi-tiered supports (MTSS), a Section 504 Plan, or an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
Similar Conditions to Repetitive Language
- Restricted interests: a child who has interests in a select set of specific topics or special interests
- Echoed and scripted language: a child who uses language that is echoed from others or from TV, movies, books, etc.
- Parallel play: a child who tends to play beside another child, rather than with other children
- Social presence issues: a child who feels less comfortable around other people and tends to shy away from social interactions
- Sharing and showing challenges: a child who is not bringing things of their interest to peers or adults for social connection and instead plays alone
- Language delay: a child who is not using language for communication; by age two, we expect children to use two-word phrases to communicate
- Expressive language discrepancy: a child who talks much better than they listen
- Functional communication: a child who can communicate with others to get basic wants and needs met has good functional communication
Book Resources on Repetitive Language in Childhood
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
 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.
 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.
 Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
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).
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.
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