Why Kids Have Trouble Understanding What People Say

At a glance

  • Lots of skills go into understanding what people say.

  • That includes focusing on what people say and understanding the meaning.

  • Kids can struggle with these skills for a number of reasons.

You ask your child questions and get answers that aren’t related. The teacher gives clear directions, but your child does something totally different—or nothing at all. A family friend tells jokes, but your child has no reaction.

What’s going on? It’s like your child doesn’t understand what people say.

There’s nothing unusual about kids not listening or following directions at times. And they don’t always get the joke. But if your child does these things a lot, you may wonder why.

Communication is complicated. You need to follow what people say, and you need to understand the meaning. Some kids struggle with one or both of these skills.

The result is they miss or misunderstand what people say. And that creates all sorts of problems—in school, at home, and in social situations.

Learn more about why kids have trouble understanding what people say, and what can help.

Challenges You Might Be Seeing

Understanding what people say involves many skills. You need to pay attention, recognize the words, know their meaning, remember the information, and pick up on tone of voice. And you need to understand the meaning of language. This skill is called receptive language.

When a child has trouble with understanding language, here’s what you might see:

  • Doesn’t ask questions or make comments

  • Interrupts a lot

  • Doesn’t follow directions or complete tasks

  • Asks people to repeat what they’ve said

  • Has trouble following conversations

  • Remembers details, but doesn’t get the greater context

  • Doesn’t seem to be listening

If kids don’t understand, they may not respond. Or they may respond with something that doesn’t relate to what the other person has said.

What Causes These Challenges

Kids have trouble understanding what people say for different reasons. A common one is trouble with listening comprehension. You might hear this referred to as receptive language. Kids who struggle with this skill have a hard time with vocabulary, directions, and questions.

But there are other factors that can come into play, including:

What Can Help

If your child doesn’t seem to get what people say, there are things you can do to help. But to provide the best support, you need to know where the challenges are. Is it difficulty with language? Or is your child not paying attention?

Ask your child’s teacher what’s happening in the classroom. Has the teacher seen similar things as you? What might help?

Trouble understanding what people say can have a big impact on your child’s social life. It can make it hard to make and keep friends. And that can make kids feel alone. It can also make them think there’s something wrong with them.

Focusing on strengths can build self-esteem. Download a fun activity to help your child recognize strengths. Discover activities that build a “growth mindset” in kids. And learn how to give praise that builds self-esteem.

Key takeaways

  • Kids who struggle with language might miss or misunderstand what people say.

  • That can impact kids at school, at home, and socially.

  • Connect with your child’s teacher to find out what’s happening in the classroom.


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