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Say What You Mean


Mother talking to her son
Thanasis Zovoilis/Moment/Getty Images

Figures of speech, sarcasm, body language, tone of voice -- these are the things that make language vivid and engaging, fun to use and interesting to listen to. But they're also the things that can stand like sturdy roadblocks between the messages we try to give our children and their ability to receive them.

Children with language processing problems, developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders and other special needs can have genuine difficulty understanding the nuances and subtexts of language. If your child reacts to something you've said in a way that surprises you -- ignoring, overreacting, defying, misunderstanding, panicking or giving you that "deer in the headlights" look -- ask yourself these questions:

Does my child understand when I'm being sarcastic? If your child is unable to pick up cues from your tone of voice, he or she may take what you say at face value -- that is, the exact opposite of your meaning.

Does my child understand figures of speech? If you use an expression your child is not familiar with -- or if he or she doesn't understand that words can be used in ways that have nothing to do with their literal meaning -- your statement may seem silly, annoying or incomprehensible.

Does my child know I'm teasing? What seems friendly and harmless to you may seem threatening and confusing to a child who does not understand that you don't really mean it -- or even why you would say a thing you don't mean.

Does my child know I'm exaggerating? You may be inflating your statements for humor or out of anger, but your child may think you really mean it. He or she may think you're being cruel; may panic or overreact; may accuse you of overreacting; or may simply not know what to make of what you've said.

Can my child tell how I'm feeling? Without an awareness of the way tone of voice and body language can change the meaning of words, your child may misinterpret your intention or your level of urgency.

Am I speaking to my child's developmental level? Just as you wouldn't talk to a five-year-old the same way you'd talk to an 11-year-old and expect the same degree of comprehension, you can't talk to a child with delayed language, social or emotional skills in a way that would be appropriate for his or her chronological age.

Am I talking too much? It's natural to try to add more and more explanation when you feel your child doesn't understand what you're saying, but if language is the problem in the first place, adding more language probably isn't going to help.

Can I give better clues? Instead of trying to tip your child to your meaning with tone of voice, body language and wordplay, use simple repetitive phrases that are easy to understand. If you want your child to do something, start by saying "I need you to ..." If you're talking about feelings, say "I feel ..."

Am I saying what I mean? If your message is anything other than simple and straightforward, pare it down and try again. You may be surprised at how much more cooperative your child is when he or she actually knows what you want.


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