Late Talkers Have More Severe Temper Tantrums: Study
Sun, April 11, 2021

Late Talkers Have More Severe Temper Tantrums: Study

A late talker is a child between 18 and 30 months, who has a limited spoken vocabulary for his or her age but with a good understanding of the language. / Photo by: angel_a via 123rf


It has long been assumed based on clinical observations that there is a connection between child speech delays and temper tantrums, but no single large-scale study had yet supported the assumption until recently.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University conducted a study on 2,000 participants and found that late talkers have more severe and frequent tantrums than children who have normal language skills. Their study, which appeared in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, explained the relation between children's expressive language and tantrums.

Identifying a Late Talker

A late talker is a child between 18 and 30 months, who has a limited spoken vocabulary for his or her age but with a good understanding of the language. They can be puzzling because although they already have the building blocks for expressive or spoken language, they still talk very little or don’t talk at all. This is according to certified speech-language pathologist Lauren Lowry, who was not a part of the recent study.

For the purpose of the study, researchers considered the child a late talker if he or she could speak less than 50 words or were not putting expressive language together by the age of 2.

Kinds of Temper Tantrums Linked to Later Mental Health Problems

Northwestern's assistant profess in the department of communication sciences and disorders Elizabeth Norton, who is also the co-principal investigator in the study, said via medical research platform MedicalXpress that people would expect children to have temper tantrums if they are frustrated and tired and the majority of parents would recognize it as a tantrum the moment they see it. However, not many parents know that there are kinds of severe and frequent tantrums that are a sign for later mental health problems, including behavior problems, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.


Not many parents know that there are kinds of severe and frequent tantrums that are a sign for later mental health problems. / Photo by: melpomen via 123rf


Categorizing Tantrums As Severe

The team categorized tantrums as severe if the child was regularly doing these things during a tantrum: kicking, hitting and holding their breath. Children who showed such a kind of tantrum once a day or more need help to improve their self-control ability, they said.

Norton added that both language delays and irritability are risk factors for later learning and language disorders. Nearly 40 percent of delayed talkers will continue to have language problems, which may affect their performance in school. This is the reason why assessing the child’s mental health risk and language skills in tandem is important because it can speed up earlier identification of problems and intervention can be done earlier, too. Toddlers with such a “double whammy” are more likely to be at higher risk, she said.

Brittany L.Manning from NU’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and team surveyed over 2,000 parents who had a kid between 12 and 38 months. These nationally representative subjects answered questions about their toddler’s tantrum behaviors and the number of words they could speak. For instance, they were asked the length of time their kid has a tantrum when they are having fun or when they are tired.

They concluded that late talkers at 24 to 30 months old are 1.96 times at risk of severe tantrums than other children with typical spoken language.

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s professor and vice chair in the department of medical social sciences Lauren Wakschlag, who is also the co-principal investigator of the study, stated that severe tantrums should be “understood within a developmental context.” She advised parents not to overreact just because they observe that other children the same age can say more words or that their child has more out-of-control kinds of tantrums. They should be concerned if there exists a “persistent pattern” of delays and/or problems.

Norton said that they wanted to take the pieces of data from their research and combine them together so they can formulate a toolkit that can be used by pediatricians or parents to better understand when they should worry about their child’s behavior and when early intervention is necessary.

Language Milestones

Lowry shares the guidelines for parents to determine if their children’s vocabulary is appropriate for their age. Children who are already 18 months old should already use at least 20 words and these should be of different types, such as nouns, social words, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs. For 24 months old, they should already use at least 100 words and a combination of 2 words. Examples would be “thank you,” “all gone,” "what’s that,” "dirty hands,” and “eat cookie.”

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, nearly 1 in 12 or 7.7 percent of children in the US have been diagnosed with a disorder related to swallowing, language, speech, and voice in the past 12 months. It also pointed out that the first 6 months of life are the most crucial to a child for the development of their language skills. Further, the prevalence of speech sound disorders (phonological disorders or articulation disorders) in young children is about 8 to 9 percent.