Children with language disorders can struggle socially and emotionally, researchers find
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Children with language disorders can struggle socially and emotionally, researchers find

by Freya Lucas

January 20, 2022

Children with specific language impairment or developmental language disorder (SLI/DLD) are more likely to struggle with regulating their emotions, a recent study published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology has found. 


SLI/DLD affect approximately seven per cent of children, and manifests as problems when talking, communicating and expressing feelings, in particular at an early age. These difficulties increase in the case of those diagnosed with developmental language disorder.


The study analysed the existence of differences in emotional regulation in children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with SLI/DLD. 


“There are still few studies that assess the emotional and social dimension of the child and adolescent population with SLI/DLD, which is why we wanted to delve into the study of emotional regulation in this population,” explained co-author Nadia Ahufinger.


“When analysing the relationship between language and emotional regulation, we observed that the expressive vocabulary that children have between five and seven years of age predicts their emotional regulation four years later, a relationship not seen during adolescence,” co-author Mari Agulilera added, noting that having a richer and broader vocabulary helps to clarify, understand and regulate emotions during childhood.


Challenges with empathy


Although no statistically significant differences were found in the study between the groups of children with and without SLI/DLD, the authors highlighted a trend during the pre-school years. 


“Children with SLI/DLD are less empathetic, that is, they are less able to capture other people’s emotions and show their own emotions,” Ms Aguilera said.


These low scores may indicate difficulties in relating to other children at key moments in a child’s personal development and may limit the successful establishment of interpersonal relationships.


“In addition, children with SLI/DLD show a lower tolerance to frustration and throw more tantrums,” the experts added. Such behaviour may reflect a reduced understanding of their own and other people’s emotional state, which may interfere with learning more flexible emotional regulation strategies to cope with different situations.


“Being able to express our emotional experiences in words will make it easier for us to elaborate and understand what is happening to us in our emotional world, and also to understand that of other people. These are key aspects for regulating our emotions in a useful and flexible way,” Ms Ahufinger stressed. She went on to say that the better the vocabulary and language children have, the more tools they will have to regulate their emotions.


The researchers pointed out that saying that children’s language difficulties are caused by parents who do not have time to talk to their children can lead to misunderstandings about the causes of the disorder and even create more anxiety. “Language difficulties may be mediated by the disorder’s genetic factors,” the experts warned.


Environmental elements 


The research also considered aspects such as the environment in which children grow up and develop, both during their childhood and adolescence, which is why the role of parents in the emotional development of their children was analysed.

“How the parents regulate their emotions is a very important factor in explaining their children’s ability to deal with emotions during childhood. However, it seems that, during adolescence, the influence of parental emotional regulation diminishes significantly,” the authors said.

Making safe spaces 


In relation to this type of developmental language disorder diagnosis in childhood and adolescence, the researchers advocate for promoting spaces in which to work with language in emotional situations, using stories and cartoons. This way, communicating emotions with words helps to elaborate them and to understand these emotions in future situations in children regardless of their disorder.


“Our research also indicates the importance of incorporating the family context to understand the person’s development, and allows us to start designing intervention strategies for the children that include all the significant figures, such as family and friends, both for emotional and linguistic aspects,” the authors conclude.


To read the study in full please see here

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