Why Your Child Speaks in the Third Person

If your child speaks in the third person, they may have a simple communication delay or a bigger problem. We'll tell you how to identify it.
Why Your Child Speaks in the Third Person
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 12 December, 2022

Speech acquisition is an important milestone in child development. Children’s communication skills evolve and advance as they grow and interact with their environment. However, sometimes delays or stagnation can occur that raise red flags. For example, if your child speaks in the third person about themself, you may need to consult a professional to determine the reason behind this behavior.

Generally, human beings speak in the first person, that is, we use the pronoun “I” to express our desires, experiences, and opinions. When a child refers to themself in the third person, they tend to use the pronouns “he”, “she”, “they” or their own name as the subject of the sentence. This anomaly is striking and may be due to various causes. Therefore, below, we’ll explain what the most common ones are so that you can help your child.

Does your child speak in the third person?

To identify if your child speaks in the third person, ask yourself the following questions: Do they usually use phrases to talk about themself such as “Maria wants more candy”, “she doesn’t want to take a bath” or “he’s sleepy”? This type of verbal expression is common in the early years of children’s lives. From the time they begin to communicate, until about three years of age, they’re relatively frequent. However, once they reach the age of 4, this sign can alert us to a bigger problem.

Many parents begin to pay attention to these manifestations when their children start school. It’s here where they observe the differences with respect to other children of the same age. It’s possible that, although your child has made significant progress in their communication skills, they still use the third person. Why is this?

First of all, it’s essential to take age into account, as this mode of expression may be part of the maturation process. If the child has already started preschool and continues to use it, we must ask ourselves if they may be imitating what they observe at home. This is because it’s common for adults to use this type of language with children. For example, if we tell them “mommy’s tired” or “daddy can’t play with you right now”, they’re likely to repeat this formulation when talking about themselves, so modifying this aspect when you speak to your child may be of help.

A young girl hugging her teddy bear and looking sullen.
If your daughter speaks in the third person and also displays hallucinations, delusions, language disturbances, or disorganized behavior, you should seek professional help, as this could be a case of childhood psychosis.

Causes why your daughter speaks in the third person

Having reviewed the above aspects, it’s important to consider that there are some medical causes that can lead children to speak in the third person. Mainly, psychosis or some degree of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Childhood psychosis

Childhood psychosis encompasses a broad group of disorders that have a common basis: The child’s unable to differentiate their internal reality from their external reality. Therefore, misperceptions, illogical thoughts, and fantasies are taken as true and cause confusion and interference in the child’s daily life.

Among the extensive set of symptoms that may occur, there are communicative disturbances, such as talking about oneself in the second or third person. That is, the child may say “you’re hungry” or “he’s hungry” instead of expressing it in the first person as would be expected (I’m hungry). This may indicate that the child has difficulty recognizing their own identity and differentiating from other individuals.

Psychosis is rare in children and usually appears in the second decade of life. However, some prodromal symptoms of childhood psychosis may be present as early as three years of age.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASD can occur in varying degrees and affect each child differently. Even so, talking about oneself in the third person, second person, or with questions is common in those with ASD and is an important warning sign.

Some infants will have shown signs before, but for many parents, this may be the first clear indication that there’s a problem. However, it’s a good idea to check for other manifestations such as the following:

  • Echolalia: Speech acquisition is the imitation of sounds, words, or phrases immediately after hearing them.
  • They express themself impersonally or construct sentences in which there’s no subject performing the action. For example, says “bag in the closet” to indicate that they want to put the bag in or take it out of the closet, or that someone else has done it.
  • Stereotyped and repetitive movements.
  • Restricted interests.
  • Difficulties in social interaction with peers.
A toddler sitting on the floor playing with a toy truck.
It’s common for a child with ASD to talk about themself in the third person, second person, or with questions.

If your child speaks in the third person, seek professional help

In short, the causes of your child referring to themself in the third person can be varied and aren’t all equally serious. It’s possible that it’s a simple delay in communication or that there’s an important disorder that requires treatment. In any case, it’s the qualified professionals who can make a diagnosis and guide the most appropriate interventions.

Pediatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists, child psychologists, and speech therapists are some of the specialists who can help determine the causes of this anomaly and indicate to families how to act. Therefore, when in doubt, seek guidance and answers. Early detection and early care are essential.

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  • García, M. P. (2002). Trastornos de la comunicación en el autismo. Revista galego-portuguesa de psicoloxía e educación, 8, 409-417. Recuperado de: http://ruc.udc.es/dspace/bitstream/2183/6911/1/RGP_8-29.pdf
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The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.