A child who is slow to learn language is no more likely than an early motor-mouth to have behavioral or emotional problems in later childhood, a new study finds.
Kids who are way below average in talking at age 2 show slightly higher levels of bad behavior at that age, researchers report today (July 4) in the journal Pediatrics. But from age 5 to 17, those kids are emotionally and behaviorally on par with their peers.
The results suggest that a "wait-and-see" approach is fine for late-talking kids as long as there are no other signs of delay, said study researcher Andrew Whitehouse of the University of Western Australia.
"It appears that late-talking in itself is not a risk factor for later behavioral and emotional problems," Whitehouse wrote in an email to LiveScience. "However, we have good evidence that if language problems persist to the school-aged years, then these children are at increased risk of psychiatric difficulties."
Whitehouse's study was the first prospective study on language development and behavior, meaning that he and his colleagues recruited children at early ages and then followed the same kids over the years until they were 17. Parents whose children were born in Perth, Australia, between 1989 and 1991 signed on to the study. When their children were 2, the parents answered surveys about the children's language and vocabulary as well as their behavior and emotions. They then answered follow-up surveys when the kids were 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17.
The researchers controlled for factors known to influence language and behavior, including family income, maternal education and the presence of a father figure in the home.
The results showed that kids who are slow to talk at age 2, meaning they were in the bottom 15 percent of their age group regarding talking ability, do have higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems. But by age 5, the 142 slow-talkers were no more troubled than the 1,245 children who talked on time.
"We suggest that the behavioral and emotional problems identified at age 2 years are due to the psychosocial difficulties of not being able to communicate (e.g., frustration)," Whitehouse said. "However, when the late-talking children 'catch-up' to normal language milestones — which they do for the majority of children — the behavioral and emotional problems are no longer apparent."
The researchers plan to do follow-up work to determine which kids are most at risk for persistent language problems, which are associated with greater psychological problems throughout childhood. For most kids, however, late language development is not cause for anxiety.
"The best thing that parents can do is provide a rich language-learning environment for their children," Whitehouse said. "This means getting down on the floor and playing with their child, talking with them, reading to them, interacting with them at their level."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.