Family, Kids & Relationships

Study Finds Late Talkers Have More Tantrums

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A study at Northwestern University has confirmed what many parents and clinicians already suspected: that late talkers often have worse temper tantrums than toddlers with typical language skills.

The researchers worked with a demographically representative sample of 2,000 toddlers between the ages of 12 months and 38 months. Late talkers — defined in the study as children who know fewer than 50 words or can’t string words together by the age of two — were found to be almost twice as likely to have severe or frequent tantrums as their peers with typical language skills. The study categorized “severe” tantrums as ones in which the child is regularly doing things like hitting, kicking, or holding their breath during a tantrum.

The study was just phase one of a larger Northwestern research project called When to Worry, in which research scientists will follow children’s progress until age 4 and a half. The project is unique in that it addresses both speech pathology and mental health together in the same study in order to focus on the “whole child,” says co-principal investigator Lauren Wakschlag.

Looking at these two aspects together is important because both can be early risk factors of later learning disorders. Wakschlag explains, “Parents should not overreact just because the child next door has more words or because their child had a day from ‘The Wild Things’ with many out-of-control tantrums. The key reliable indicators of concern in both these domains is a persistent pattern of problems and/or delays. When these go hand in hand, they exacerbate each other and increase risk, partly because these problems interfere with healthy interactions with those around them.”

The study results represent the first scientific data showing evidence of this link between speech delays and temper tantrums. The connection makes a lot of sense logically — since toddlers who have trouble using words to communicate have more reason to get frustrated — but had never actually been studied. The paper’s first author, Brittany Manning, came into this research with a background in speech-language pathology, and says, “I’ve had many conversations with parents and clinicians about concerning temper tantrums and late talking, but there was no research data on the topic I could point them to.”

If you have concerns about your child’s language development, with or without over-the-top tantrums, co-principal investigator Elizabeth Norton suggests consulting your pediatrician: “The pediatrician can perform tests to rule out conditions like hearing loss or autism that may explain your child’s language delay, and help determine if any follow-up is needed.”

Norton also recommends simply talking a lot with your child, using a variety of words on topics that they are interested in. For example, if your child seems drawn toward a certain object, ask them questions about that object and talk about what the object can do.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.