Toddler Tantrums Linked to Speech Delays

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN
November 26, 2019

A common belief among parents has been proven right. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology confirmed the relationship between speech delays and temper tantrums in toddlers.

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Northwestern University Study Tracked Tantrums

A broad 2,000 participant study performed by Northwestern University researchers surveyed parents of toddlers between the ages of 12 and 38 months.  Surveyors queried parents about their toddler’s vocabulary and word count and asked parents to track when their toddler had a tantrum (fatigued versus playing). 

A toddler was designated as a “late talker” if they used fewer than 50 words or if they were not attempting to connect words by age 2. Tantrums were considered to be “severe” if a toddler was hitting, kicking, or holding their breath. The study found late talkers to have double the amount of severe temper tantrums when compared to their peers.

Severe Temper Tantrums and Delayed Vocabulary

The presence of consistent severe tantrums as a toddler is a risk factor for later mental health concerns in children. By finding a link between a developmental speech delay and severe tantrums, researchers believe they may have found an early risk factor for mental health and behavioral problems.

The earliest age clinicians believe behavioral problems can be identified is 12 months old. Why is this fact significant? Because the study included children as young as 12 months old, therefore the severe tantrums may be a predictor for problems. Researchers believe that by being able to identify possible early risks (e.g., delayed speech, severe tantrums), this will lead to earlier —and more effective—interventions.

“When to Worry”

The study is part of a multi-phase project by Northwestern University. The project, called “When to Worry,” continues onto the next phase. The next phase hopes to examine the brain and behavioral development differences between toddlers who exhibit speech delays and behavioral problems versus developmentally typical toddlers.

The “When to Worry” researchers come from various disciplines (mental health, speech pathology, etc.) to create a “whole child” focus on behavioral health. Studying for links between developmental milestones and mental health can have revolutionary implications for the identification of behavioral risk factors in children. Preventing mental health challenges from manifesting in children may be much easier to address in the long run than treating mental illness throughout life as an adult.

The “When to Worry” study name came about because the researchers’ goal was to establish set parameters for when a parent should “worry” about a child’s behavioral health. Finding tandem links, like severe tantrums and speech delays found together, could allow parents to seek out assistance for their child earlier than they normally would have.

Should Parents Worry?

Does this mean parents of a toddler should worry if there is a severe tantrum or speech delay? Not necessarily. Although consistently severe tantrums are considered a risk factor for future mental health problems, it’s the combined presence of several risk factors that presents concerns.

It’s best to be aware of developmental factors and communicate any concerns to a child’s pediatrician. Tantrums occur due to many reasons, but consistently severe tantrums can be a red flag for future problems. 

Toddlers are still learning how to regulate their emotions and communicate their needs, which is why tantrums occur. To minimize tantrums and teach coping skills, encourage the child to use self-soothing techniques, and describe what they feel. Teaching toddlers about the importance of communicating their needs appropriately can keep everyone calm.

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN

Maria Morioka, BSN, RN has been a Licensed Registered Nurse in the mental health field for nearly 15 years. Maria strongly believes in educating others about the importance of mental health.

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