A young child with delayed language development does not generally have a higher risk of having emotional and behavioral problems later on during childhood and their teenage years, compared to their peers with normal speech development, researchers from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, University of Western Australia, reported in Pediatrics.

This is the first study, the researchers say, to follow children with language development delay from the age of two years through to their late teens. They gathered data from the long-running Raine Study.

Professor Andrew Whitehouse, study leader, explained that while late talkers tend to have higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems when they are very young, these problems do not tend to prevail.

Dr. Whitehouse said:

“We assessed the children at two years of age and at several time-points up to 17 years and found that while the late-talkers had increased levels of psychosocial problems at age two, they were at no more risk for these problems at later ages.

We suggest that the behavioural and emotional problems identified at two years are due to the psychosocial difficulties of not being able to communicate, such as frustration.

However, when the late-talking children ‘catch-up’ to normal language milestones – which is the case for the majority of children by school-age – the behavioural and emotional problems are no longer apparent.”

There were 1,387 children in this study, 9.9% (142) were late-talkers while 1,245 had normal language development. The parents had completed a Language Development Survey when their children were two years old, and also a Child Behavior Checklist at ages, 2, 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17.

Parents should feel reassured by their findings, Dr. Whitehouse said. He explained that language delay is not a risk factor in itself for subsequent emotional and behavioral problems later on in life.

Dr. Whitehouse added:

“Having a child who is not talking as much as other children can be very distressing for parents. Our findings suggest that parents should not be overly concerned that their late-talking toddler will have language and psychological difficulties later in childhood.

There is good evidence that most late-talking children will ‘catch-up’ to the language skills of other children. The best thing that parents can do is provide a rich language-learning environment for their children. This means getting down on the floor and playing their child, talking with them, reading to them, interacting with them at their level.”

In a minority of children, Whitehouse warns, problems do persist.

Dr. Whitehouse said:

“We have good evidence that if language problems persist to the school-aged years, then these children are at increased risk of behavioral difficulties and appropriate help should be sought.”

Dr. Whitehouse and team would like to find out more about those who never catch up and continue having language difficulties for the rest of their lives. They would have better outcomes if intervention for these children occurred earlier.

Most children by the age of two years can combine two-to-three word sentences from a vocabulary of about 500 words.

“Late Talking and the Risk for Psychosocial Problems During Childhood and Adolescence”
Andrew J.O. Whitehouse, PhD, Monique Robinson, PhD, Stephen R. Zubrick, PhD
Pediatrics Published online July 4, 2011. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-2782

Written by Christian Nordqvist