Social, Emotional, and Academic6 MINUTE READ

Speech and Language Delays Can Lead to Behavior Problems

All kids have their moments: an angry outburst, refusal to follow directions, even a tantrum or a fit. It’s a normal and expected part of childhood! But frequent or daily behavior problems aren’t part of typical development. If you’re a parent or caregiver dealing with behavior issues in your child, it can be draining and exhausting for everyone in the family.

While there can be many different causes of behavior problems, in some children, there’s a close link to a speech delay or language difficulty. Let’s walk through some of these behavioral and language issues and how speech therapy can help. Improving your child’s communication skills may just be the key to helping them improve their behavior issues as well!

What do behavior issues in kids look like?

Behavior problems can present differently for many kids, but here are some common ones:

  • Outbursts or tantrums

  • Unwillingness to follow directions

  • Being angry or irritable

  • Purposefully annoying others

  • Physical aggression toward others, such as hitting, kicking, or scratching

Some children may show one of these behaviors, while other kids may have many. Knowing how to handle these problems, let alone what’s causing them, can be concerning for many families, especially when they’re a regular occurrence.

How does delayed speech and language relate to behavior issues?

There are many ways that speech and language can contribute to behavior problems. If a child does not have the vocabulary or sound production skills to clearly express their thoughts and needs, this can cause them frustration–especially in a situation where they feel strongly. Let’s create an example. Think about a caregiver who has to take away an ice cream cone from a child. The ice cream is melting and creating a mess. They tell the child they just have to clean it up quickly and will give it right back. But as you know, it’s not always easy to reason with a child! If the child isn’t able to say “Please give it back!” or “I want that!,” they may be more likely to express this frustration in another way: yelling, crying, hitting. Now let’s take the same situation but discuss how a receptive language issue could play a role. Receptive language refers to a child’s ability to understand what is spoken to them. Again, pretend the adult has to take away the melting ice cream cone for a minute, to clean things up. They tell the child what they are doing. But if the child can’t comprehend what was said, all they understand is what they’re experiencing: their ice cream being taken away! To them, it feels like this is happening without any warning or reason. It should be noted that many children with receptive language disorders also have an expressive language disorder, meaning it’s hard for them to express their wants and needs. This makes it even more likely they’d act out in a negative way.

How language delays affect our “inner voice”

Another way that speech and language delays play a role in childhood behavior problems relates to a child’s ability to have an inner monologue. Research suggests that an inner monologue, much like an inner voice, helps children decide how to respond in different situations. Children with a language delay may be lacking this inner voice. For example, if a child with a language delay is told not to touch the TV, they have to process that information and inhibit their natural response–which is likely to go ahead and touch the TV! A child should be able to use their internal monologue to inhibit this response and make the right choice. A child with a language delay may be more impulsive and lack the comprehension needed to follow the direction.

Signs of a speech or language delay

Of course, just because a child has behavior problems doesn’t mean they have communication problems. So how do you know if your child is struggling with their speech or language? The key is to determine if a child is meeting age-appropriate milestones. Here are a few signs to look for:

  • If a child is 2 years old, they should be able to communicate using two-word phrases, such as "More please" or "Give me."

  • If a child is 3 years or older, they should be able to communicate in at least four-word sentences: "I want to go" or "Can I have that?"

The best way to determine if your child has a speech or language delay is through an evaluation with a licensed speech-language pathologist, or speech therapist. If a language delay is contributing to a child’s behavior issues, speech therapy can be extremely beneficial.

How can speech therapy help children with behavior issues?

Through an evaluation, the speech therapist identifies the child’s current communication strengths and weaknesses. This helps the therapist know exactly what to target in therapy. Testing may pick up on things like delayed expressive language, delayed receptive language, or both. The speech therapist may also identify any speech production issues making the child’s speech harder to understand. The results of the speech evaluation will allow the therapist to create a treatment plan for the child with specific goals.

During speech therapy sessions, the therapist will use games and activities to help a child learn to say new words, form sentences, improve their comprehension skills, or improve their speech production. Here’s an example: If a child is working on using words to express their needs, the therapist may teach them phrases such as “I want that” or “Help me, please.” Functional phrases like these can help a child learn to verbally express what they need, instead of acting out with a negative behavior. The speech therapist will also teach the family how to help the child with their goals at home, so they can continue to make progress in all situations. As a child learns to better communicate, it can help them reduce their negative responses. It takes time for children to make progress toward their goals, then apply what they’ve learned in everyday situations–especially when strong emotions are involved. However, consistent speech therapy and home practice will help children improve behavior issues that are linked to communication delays.

Schedule a speech evaluation for your child

When you’re dealing with behavior problems in your child, it’s easy to feel like you’re alone. But help is available. If you’ve read to this point and think your child could benefit from speech services, don’t wait! Reach out to a speech therapist for an evaluation. Speech therapists are experienced in working with families of all kinds, and they’re ready to help, guide, and support you and your child.

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