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My Daughter Struggles to Communicate

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


My 7-year-old daughter has trouble explaining herself when asked a question. It's like she knows what she wants to say but has trouble expressing it. The only way you can get an answer out of her is by listening to her try to explain it a couple of times and then guessing what she is trying to say. Is there anything I can do to help her, or should she see a speech therapist?


I am wondering if your daughter is in first grade at age 7 because of her birthday or other reasons such as school readiness or retention. Her past school performance might be helpful in discussing the direction you want to pursue with her teacher and school administrators.

It sounds as if you have the same difficulty with her at home, since you mentioned that you have to guess what she is trying to communicate. Has this always been the case or is it something recent due to any stress or change in the family? Anxiety or trauma can contribute to poor communication skills.

If she has an expressive language disorder, that means she understands language better than she can communicate. Developmental language disorders, which are the most common, can be found in children of normal intelligence and can be related to another disorder or condition.

It is usually apparent at a young age when language skills are being formed. For example, a 2-year-old might be able to follow easy instructions but not name her body parts. Older children might have problems relaying a story or interacting with their peers. Even if there are organic reasons for poor expressive language skills, the stress of trying to be understood can exacerbate the problem.

It may be useful to have her evaluated by a speech and language therapist. Some schools offer the evaluation after first having a meeting to determine the child's overall needs. A thorough evaluation can help you and the school plan what further services are required to support her.

For more information about speech and language disorders, visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's speech disorders page.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"My son was similar. Sometimes his answers made no sense to me, though he seemed to know exactly what he meant. I'd play detective to figure it out by asking specific questions and reworded what I thought he was trying to say. I found that his way of thinking was just very different from mine. He also would start and stop and try several times to say one thing. I accredited it to his mind moving much faster than he could speak and just trying to pick the right words to say exactly what he meant. We'd tell him to slow down and try to match what he was thinking with what he was saying, which seemed to work. Now he's in middle school and we seem to have another problem with him explaining himself (and maybe this is age related?) - leaving out information that can get him into trouble, like he has difficulty discerning what information is important. He also has difficulty in explaining his actions - either he denies them, or he takes responsibility even if erroneously - like ! he doesn't know how to defend them. Any suggestions? "