Palilalia: Child whispers and repeats under his breath
Hello Dr. Laura, my 6 year old son just start to whisper repeat occasionally. For example he would say "I'm going to draw a picture" and then he would whisper "draw a picture" to himself. This is very recent and he only does it occasionally. yesterday after he whispered I just said "what?" and he said he didn't say anything. So I replied "oh I thought you whispered something" and he said i only said that to myself. So I told him that usually when I say things to myself I just say them in my head otherwise it gets confusing to others. He still did it a few times today and I am just wondering if it is something I should address or just let go and will likely work itself out. Thanks so much -- Lindsay
What you're describing is called Palilalia, which is when we repeat our own words to ourselves, usually although not always under our breath.
This is usually thought of as a nervous tic. Many kids develop little nervous tics that come and then fade away, like minor stutters or eye twitches. Presumably, the child was under some stress, such as starting school or a new big sibling, or accomplishing a developmental hurdle (bike riding, reading). Once the child masters or gets accustomed to the situation, the tic fades.
We can think of this as an expression of anxiety. The adults who remember doing this as a child say that they were just double-checking whether they said it correctly, or "organizing" themselves, or "narrating" their lives. These adults often describe having done this for a year and then outgrown it. Some of them say they still do it a bit in their heads, and that they see it as a tendency toward perfectionism.
My own perception is that in addition to this being a symptom of anxiety, the child is distracting himself from feelings or thoughts that bother him. For instance, if an image pops into my head of a fight with someone that leaves me cringing with self-criticism, I might focus on something in my immediate environment to distract me, and repeat that, whether it is a sign I am seeing, or something someone said. Some people develop a little phrase that pops into their head to "change the subject" such as "Ok, what else?" If you monitor your own stream of thoughts, you can see this little defense mechanism working, trying to distract you from thoughts that might make you anxious.
So I would look at your son's life to assess any sources of stress and try to minimize them. Does he seem anxious in other ways? Perfectionistic? If so, I would recommend Tamar Chansky's book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias
I need to add that occasionally, repeating things under our breath is a sign of a neurological disorder like Autism or Tourettes or OCD. You are not describing any other symptoms, which would almost certainly be obvious and more concerning to you, so unless there are things you didn't mention, I would assume that your son's symptom does NOT indicate a major issue. However, if it continues, you will certainly want to mention it to your pediatrician at your next visit.
As far as treatment goes, pestering your child about it doesn't seem to help; that just seems to make them self-conscious. Most kids think that they are saying the words in their heads, not aloud. Addressing anxiety more generally is probably much more effective than getting into a power struggle about something that the child probably cannot control, but which expresses anxiety. Like other ways of managing anxiety, this can become a habit, so it is best if you can address the cause at the root.
If he gets teased about it at school, you can ask him if he wants you to help him break the habit. That would take enormous effort on his part, but it is possible, if he's committed to it. If he's not motivated himself, your input is not likely to help him break the habit. But you could experiment a bit, for instance by teaching him to breathe more deeply when he feels even slightly anxious. For instance, when he says something, he could take a deep breath and let it out. That would discharge the anxiety and shift the habit to something less noticeable to others. But if he isn't interested, I would back off, rather than implying that there is something wrong with him. He will almost certainly outgrow this on his own.
And I want to add that Albert Einstein went through a year around the age of six where he repeated to himself in a whisper everything he said. Apparently Palilalia is most common in kids who are very intelligent.
So don't worry, and enjoy your son!