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Speech Delay in Kids Linked to Later Emotional Problems

Study Shows Language Delays at Age 5 May Lead to Mental Health Issues in Adulthood
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 28, 2010 -- Children with speech delays may be at greater risk for developing social, emotional, or behavioral problems as adults, according to a 29-year study in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Researchers used a standardized test to measure receptive language skills -- the ability to understand what others are saying -- among 6,941 children at age 5. Follow-up data were available on 72% of these children when they turned 34.

Overall, children who showed signs of delays in receptive language skills at age 5 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,” conclude the researchers, who were led by Ingrid Schoon, PhD,  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 socialize 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 behavioral health problems.

Those children with language delays were more likely to be born to teenage moms or parents with low educational levels than children who did not show signs of language delays at age 5. 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 Carl B. Feinstein, MD, the endowed director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. “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,” Feinstein says. “This important and sound new study shows that it also affects how well these kids do in life.”

But “parents can do a lot,” he says. “How much you read to your children 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,” Feinstein says. “If you have concerns, go to the pediatrician and ask for a speech and language assessment, and if the child goes to school, request that the school provide an assessment,” he suggests.

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