Scientists have long suggested that delays in language development and tantrums in a child may be related, but no large-scale study has yet supported this hypothesis with data. Until now.
A new project from Northwestern University, which involved 2,000 participants, showed that toddlers with less vocabulary have more anger attacks than their peers with age-appropriate language skills. This is the first study of its kind to link delays in speech development in babies with behavioral tantrums. The sample also included children under 12 months of age, despite the fact that the older age is considered “crisis” in this regard.
“We know toddlers have tantrums when they’re tired or frustrated, and most parents are stressed at times like this,” said study co-author Elizabeth Norton, assistant professor of communication sciences. “But few parents know that certain types of frequent or severe tantrums can indicate the risk of later mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and behavior problems.”
Just like irritability, speech delays are risk factors for later learning and speech disorders, Norton points out. According to her, about 40% of these children will have constant problems with speech in the future, which can affect their academic performance. This is why assessing both linguistic and mental health in tandem can accelerate early detection and intervention in early childhood disorders. After all, children with this “double problem” are likely to be at higher risk.
Regular recurrence of outbursts of anger, significant delay in speech can be key indicators of anxiety.
“We knew from many other studies of older children that speech and mental health problems were more common than you might expect. But before this project, we had no idea how early they would start, ”adds Elizabeth Norton, who is also the director of the university’s laboratory that studies language development, learning and reading in the context of neuroscience.
The study interviewed a representative group of more than 2,000 parents with children aged 12 to 38 months. Parents answered questions about the number of words spoken by the children and the “outbursts” in their behavior – for example, how often a child has hysterics during moments of fatigue or, conversely, during entertainment.
A toddler is considered “late to speak” if he has less than 50 words or is not typing new words by the age of 2. According to researchers, the predisposition to strong and / or frequent outbursts of anger in “late-speaking” children is almost double that of their peers with normal language skills. Scientists classify tantrums as “severe” if a child regularly holds their breath, punches or kicks during a tantrum. Babies who have these attacks on a daily basis or even more often may need help developing self-control skills.
Don’t rush to panic
“All of these behaviors need to be addressed in a developmental context, not in their own right,” said co-author Lauren Vakshlag, professor and deputy head of the Department of Health and Social Sciences at Northwestern University and director of the DevSci Institute for Innovation and Developmental Sciences. – Parents should not rush to conclusions and overreact only to the fact that the child in the neighborhood has more words or because their child had a bad day. Regular recurrence of outbursts of anger and significant delay in speech can be key indicators of anxiety in both of these areas. When these two manifestations go hand in hand, they exacerbate each other and increase risks – in part because such problems interfere with healthy interactions with others. ”
In-depth study of the problem
This survey is just the first phase of a larger research project at Northwestern University, which continues under the title “When to Worry?” and is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The next step involves examining approximately 500 babies in Chicago.
In the control group, there are those whose development takes place according to all age norms, and those who demonstrate irritable behavior and / or speech delays. Scientists will study the development of the brain and behavior of children to pinpoint the indicators that will help distinguish time delays from the emergence of serious problems.
Parents and their kids will meet with the organizers of the project annually until the children are 4.5 years old. Such a long, complex focus “on the child as a whole” is not very common in scientific research in the field of speech pathology and mental health, explains Dr. Vakshlag.
Scientists and medical professionals have information that is important to many families to help identify and solve the problems described.
“Our Institute for Innovation and Developmental Sciences, DevSci, was specially created to ensure that scientists leave traditional classrooms, go beyond the usual patterns and can work most effectively, using all the tools available today to solve the assigned tasks,” she explains.
“We want to take and bring together all the developmental information available to us so that pediatricians and parents have the tools to help them determine when to sound the alarm and seek help from specialists. And it shows at what point the intervention of the latter will be most effective, ”says Elizabeth Norton.
Her student Brittany Manning is one of the authors of an article on the new project, whose work in the field of speech developmental pathology was part of the impetus for the study itself. “I had a lot of conversations with parents and clinicians about the outbursts of late-speaking children, but there was no scientific research on this topic to draw on,” Manning said. Now scientists and doctors have information that is important both for science and for many families, which will help to timely identify and solve the described problems.