Kids’ speech delay linked to later emotional problems

Children with speech delays may be
at greater risk for developing social, emotional or behavioural problems as
adults, according to a 29-year study in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Researchers used a standardised
test to measure receptive language skills – the ability to understand what
others are saying – among 6,941 children at age five. Follow-up data were
available on 72 per cent of these children when they turned 34.

Overall, children who showed signs
of delays in receptive language skills at age five were more likely to
experience mental health problems at age 34 than children who did not experience
such delays. These findings were more pronounced among men than women, the
study shows.

“The psychosocial consequences of
early receptive language problems are pervasive and continue into adult life,”
concluded the researchers, who were led by Dr. Ingrid Schoon, professor of
human development and social policy at the Institute of Education of the University
of London. “The needs of children with early language problems are complex, and
increased awareness should be paid to the persisting social and psychological
difficulties that these children may go on to experience.”

Parents play crucial role

Early language delays can affect a
child’s ability to socialise with peers and make friends. This social isolation
can carry over into their adult years. This may manifest itself as trouble
cultivating and maintaining relationships and/or holding down a job, both of
which can be harbingers for mental or behavioural health problems.

Those children with language delays
were more likely to be born to teenage mothers or parents with low educational
levels than children who did not show signs of language delays at age five.
What’s more, parents of language-delayed kids were more likely to be stressed,
showed less interest in their child’s education, and did not read regularly to
their child.

“These findings mirror what we see
in practice,” says Dr. Carl B. Feinstein, the endowed director of child and
adolescent psychiatry at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto,
California. “Delayed language is a huge risk factor for social and emotional
problems, but this link doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

“Delayed receptive language is very
strongly associated with delays in learning in school, and getting behind in
school is a huge risk for emotional problems and poor self-esteem,” Mr.
Feinstein said. “This important and sound new study shows that it also affects
how well these kids do in life.”

How much you read to your children,
he said, and the attention you pay to their education makes a difference.
“Speaking to your child and taking time to have a back-and-forth conversation
is also helpful.”

The new findings represent “a call
to action,” Mr. Feinstein said. “If you have concerns, go to the paediatrician
and ask for a speech and language assessment.”


Early intervention best

“The results from this study
suggest that children who experience poor receptive language skills in early
childhood are more likely to experience lower levels of mental health in
adulthood than the [children] with normal language development,” explained
Melissa Wexler Gurfein, a speech-language pathologist in New York. “These
findings are not surprising as children with poor receptive language skills
often fall behind in social situations, as well as academic situations,” she

“With this, a language-delayed
child may experience low self-esteem, which, without intervention, may impact
on how this child transitions throughout childhood and into adulthood.”

This was not to say children with
language delays are a lost cause, she said. “It is important to provide the
right support and intervention for a child who is experiencing language
delays,” she said. “The earlier a child receives proper intervention, the more
successful that intervention might be.”

Ms Wexler Gurfein’s advice to
parents and paediatricians? “It is important to identify a child who is suspected
of having a language delay and begin treatment for the delay to hopefully not
only help the child catch up to his same-age peers, but also to provide the
support he needs to be successful in life.”

Joslin Zeplin-Paradise, a
speech-language pathologist in New York, agreed. “A language delay is not a
setup to fail,” she said. “It is an opportunity to seek help and get to the
root cause of the problem,” she said.

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