Study links delayed vocab with severe tantrums in toddlers

James Pollard, Assistant Campus Editor

Delayed vocabulary among toddlers is linked to more frequent and severe temper tantrums, according to a new study from Northwestern University.

The 2,000-participant study surveyed parents with a toddler between 12 and 38 months old. In the study, a “late talker” is a toddler with fewer than 50 words or an inability to put words together by two years old. Tantrums are considered “severe” if the toddler regularly holds their breath, hits or kicks during the tantrum. The study found the connection as early as 12 months.

“We totally expect toddlers to have temper tantrums if they’re tired or frustrated, and most parents know a tantrum when they see it,” said Communication Prof. Elizabeth Norton. “But not many parents know that certain kinds of frequent or severe tantrums can indicate risk for later mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and behavior problems.”

The survey is part of an ongoing Northwestern research project called “When to Worry.” Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the next study will examine brain and behavioral development to locate indicators that will help distinguish short delays from greater problems.

Norton, a co-principal investigator, said that irritability and language delays are both risk factors for learning disorders. About 40 percent of delayed talkers will have continuous language problems that could affect their academic performance, she said.

However, Feinberg Prof. Lauren Wakschlag said these behaviors must be understood within a developmental context.

“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,” Wakschlag said. “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.”

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