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Helping a Child With Speech Delays Make Friends

Children with speech delays might find it hard to make friends. Here’s how parents can help.



For children with speech delays, communication is an added challenge to making friends.

Amanda V., a Newark, DE mom whose son has a rare chromosomal abnormality and apraxia of speech, says she helped smooth the way when he was younger. For example, he loved to play tag and before a game started she would explain to the others how “he has a hard time talking but understands everything you say.”

Here are some other ways to help a child with special needs make friends.

Seek common interests

Encourage your child to find friends who enjoy the same things he does.

Trish Mayro, a speech language pathologist and clinical supervisor at the Speech Language Institute of Salus University in Elkins Park, PA, says programs where kids work on a “shared mission” can help children with speech delays interact with others. For instance, groups like Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and karate lessons encourage social skills, with a leader that shows them what to do.

Consider a support group or camp for kids with similar challenges. Mayro recalls that her daughter, who has epilepsy, returned from a camp for kids with epilepsy with a new feeling of empowerment.

Support groups outside of school can also help a child know he’s not alone, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton area psychologist and author of books including Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. However, it is important to remember that the child’s disability “is not the most interesting or important thing about” him or should not be the basis for all of his friendships.

Start with at-home play dates

Once your child identifies a classmate with a common interest, she can invite her for a one-on-one play date at your home. “Learn to practice things on your home turf,” says Mayro. “It’s a safe place.” Have your child offer a choice of activities, Kennedy-Moore recommends, and be ready to step in with a snack or other distraction if things get awkward.    

Role play in advance

A child who has difficulties with communication might find it hard to respond when someone says something mean. Coach her to respond with a short word or phrase instead of trying to explain herself or be mean in return. Retorts like “so what” and “whatever” are classics for a reason. Or help her practice a nonsense response like “You’re such a niff-naff” for a silly way to diffuse more difficult interactions.

Practice even friendly interactions in advance too. “A lot of conversation is pretty formulaic,” Kennedy-Moore notes. For example, a child can answer “How are you?” with “Great,” plus one fact.

Be proactive

Check with your child’s therapists and teachers through the year about how other students interact with him. Liz Lucas, clinical instructor at the Communication and Science Disorders Department of the University of Delaware, recommends speech therapists accompany the child to an art or gym class, where students more often engage socially.

Step back

Amanda’s son, now 11, recently attended his class banquet. Amanda went with him, but once he was comfortable, she stood back while he spent time with his friends. “I kind of let him do his own thing.” Friendship is one of the few areas where children can have autonomy. Adults should “facilitate but not take over,” according to Kennedy-Moore. “Friendship belongs to children.”

Suzi Morales is a New Jersey freelance writer.

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