Helping My Son Learn to Talk

When my eldest son was 18 months old, he said "daddy" for the first time. My husband and I were ecstatic. He said daddy! He was finally going to start talking! But we did not hear that word again until he was well over two. And every day in between I waited to hear another word (or two).

As I waited, I found myself repeatedly saying to friends and family phrases like, "I can't wait for him to speak. It will be so fun when he talks. I will finally get to know what's on his mind."

I justified his lack of speech (to myself and others) many ways: We spoke three languages at home. He was a boy, and boys are often less verbal than girls. He was very physically active and first walked at 8 months. Children develop differently, I told myself. Some children are more verbal and others more physical.

Despite my rationalizations, as a trained psychotherapist with a background in developmental psychology, I knew he was late. I told myself not to panic and reminded myself that all children develop in their own time. But deep down, I knew that this could signal a problem.

Six months passed -- six months of me repeating those same phrases to friends and family. But now, their responses became repetitive: "How many words does he say?" "Is he talking yet?" When the pediatrician weighed in, my worries were confirmed. He was 2, and he used only about 10 words.

My thoughts spun me into a spiral of anxiety. I wondered what this meant for him and for our role as parents. Was this the beginning of a whole new world? A new worldview? The "what ifs" were overwhelming. I started to dread my own thoughts.

I also began to dread social activities. Because my son was unable to speak, having a tantrum was the only way he could express his needs. He was understandably frustrated, and I never knew when he was going to erupt into a tantrum. When he did, I didn't know why because he couldn't tell me. Trips to the park, mommy and me classes, or the grocery store were often fraught with anxiety.

So I became hypervigilant to his every need, hoping I could meet it before the storm hit. But no matter how good a mind reader I became, there would come a moment I missed his cues and a meltdown ensued.

I felt utterly helpless in the face of his frustration and frustrated by my own helplessness. I was the parent and was "supposed" to have the answers. But I had none. Looking back, I realize that I was afraid of seeking support because I was afraid we would discover he needed more than speech therapy.

We decided finally to have him assessed and began a course of speech therapy. Within weeks, he was happier and more communicative. Within six months, he was speaking in full sentences. By the end of the year, he had caught up with his peers.

It is so hard to acknowledge that your child may need help. It's easy to worry that you have done something wrong as a parent. But I know now that the benefits of seeking support far outweigh the stress of wondering if there might be something wrong and trying to manage everything on your own.

For example:

You will gain a partner in a professional therapist who will help you understand what your child needs and will come to love your child and celebrate his progress with you.

There will even be unforeseen benefits for your child by having the opportunity to bond with, and learn from, another adult who is so invested in his progress.

Parenting will become easier once your child's frustrations (and, in turn, your frustrations) are eased by having his needs met.

Your child will gain emotionally from the learning and social opportunities that will result once his developmental challenges are addressed. Early intervention can make all the difference to your child having a successful and happy first experience in school.

It can be scary to start asking questions about whatever is worrying you about your child. But when you receive professional support, uncertainties can become certainties. With more certainty and knowledge, you and your partner can map out short-term and long-term plans for your child and your family. And there is something so unexpectedly empowering in trusting your gut as a parent and seeing progress in your child.

This article originally ran on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit organization providing clinical care, research funding, and information to transform mental health care and wellness for women.