Is your child struggling to have back-and-forth conversation?

Is your child:

  • Always talking about dinosaurs?
  • Giving a monologue?
  • Acting like a little professor by offering a lecture about outer space?
  • Lecturing endlessly without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise?
  • Failing to stay on topic; constantly returning to personal interests?
  • Ignoring you in conversation, awkwardly responding “oh?”
  • Asking rapid-fire questions, rather than waiting for a response?
  • Using conversation topics that are too personal, or inappropriate?
  • Overall, having trouble with back and forth conversation that includes sharing information, listening to what others’ have to say, staying on topic and asking relevant questions?


As a parent, do you find yourself getting bored in conversations with your child? Are you thinking, if I hear one more word about snakes today I am going to fall right asleep? Do you feel more like an audience member than a participant in a conversation? Many children may have difficulty with reciprocal conversation.

By grade school, we should see children engaging in conversation with one another. Children should not simply monologue about a topic. During typical social development, we should see children exchanging information, staying on topic, and asking questions of one another. 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. Social reciprocity includes skills like:

  • 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.

Toddlers and preschool children may begin to share information. A simple exchange of “I have a baby sister.” “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].

Children in late elementary and middle school start to share confidences with one another, to converse at a higher level about feelings and to identify which friends serve which roles in his or her life [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.”


Strategies at home: Practice with your child. Writing down a cue card might help. 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 he feels the buzz.

Discuss with your child which friends like which subjects, such as video games, sports, art, or music. Help your child determine what his or her common interests are with each friend. This way, you can brainstorm conversation topics that would be good for each friend.

Finally, set up supervised play dates and outings. Give your child opportunities to get together with one other child so that he or she 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.”

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.

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. He may give a lecture about the Hubble Telescope or tell you every detail about his 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]. It is also hard to read other people when you are not paying attention to their 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.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • ADHD: includes deficits in attention that can also cause conversational challenges. You may be likely to see impulsivity, hyperactivity, and not reading other children’s cues of “this is too much.” ADHD is characterized by challenges with sustained attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity [7, 8]
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: includes deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. In children, reciprocal conversation is defined as the ability to carry on a back and forth conversation with a partner including comments, questions, and answers
  • Language Disorder: includes deficits in language that impact conversation skills. If a child does not have strong receptive language, even when expressive language is okay, conversation will be limited. Children with ASD sometimes have language impairments, so language is an important area to have assessed
  • Intellectual Disability: includes deficits in cognitive ability (low IQ scores) that may lead to a delay in reaching social milestones. Global delays, not just in the area of language and conversation skills, can be present


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • 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

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:

  • CELF-5: this measure of language assesses Vocabulary, Language Comprehension, Expressive and Receptive Language, Pragmatic Language, and Language Memory
  • WISC-V: this measure of intelligence provides information on abilities in verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, visual spatial, working memory, and processing speed. Understanding a child’s cognitive profile can help us understand strengths and weaknesses that may be associated with ASD. The WISC-V can also help guide what other measures need to be administered to get a better picture of overall functioning. This test may be very broad, including language, motor, attention, memory, executive functioning, sensory processing, emotions, behavior, and more
  • ADOS-2 Module 3: this measure of social communication and restricted, repetitive behavior, is used to rule in or out the presence of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The ADOS-2 gives information that can guide the formation of treatment goals


[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.


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


[5] 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.


[6] UCLA PEERS Clinic

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


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


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

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

[11] 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.


[12] 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.


Image Credit:
Description: Rehearsing Can Be Fun
Image ID: 25509982 (iStock)
Licensed: October 29, 2016
By: Yuri_Arcurs
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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