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Child Late To Talk? When To Stress

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SPEECH PROBLEMS

When parents go to New York-based certified speech-language pathologist Tanya Hefets, they are often overcome with fear and frustration.

Their son or daughter may not have hit key developmental markers, like babbling at 4 to 6 months or stringing words together by age 2. They are often deeply concerned about what this might mean.

"The parents go through a roller coaster of emotions," Hefets told The Huffington Post. "All of a sudden they're not looking at their child just happily playing; they're looking at their child and wondering what's going to happen five years from now or 10. It can be a tremendous stress."

Multiple issues can accompany delayed language development. In addition to lacking functional language skills that would allow them to express basic wants and needs, studies have suggested that late talkers -- broadly defined as children who at age two lack certain key vocabulary skills -- can suffer from emotional problems as well.

However, a new study out today -- the first to look at whether later talkers are at greater risk for behavioral and emotional problems into adolescence -- suggests these issues may not last.

Researchers in Australia tracked 142 late talkers who had no other developmental delays at several intervals up to age 17. They found that the children did have increased levels of so-called "internalizing problems," which can include things like withdrawal, anxiety and fearfulness, and "externalizing problems," which can include aggression and under-socialization.

But the researchers also found that, beyond age 2, these problems did not continue.

"When the late-talking children 'catch up' to normal language milestones -- which they do, for the majority of the children -- the behavioral and emotional problems are no longer apparent," explained Dr. Andrew Whitehouse, reader in Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Western Australia and the study's lead author.

Much of that, Whitehouse told The HuffPost, could be due to "frustration at not being able to communicate, rather than due to a shared genetic cause." Thus, as language skills issues resolve as the child ages, the majority of the emotional and behavioral issues also resolve themselves.

Whitehouse adds that the majority of late-talkers -- the study says 70 to 80 percent -- do catch up to their peers, though a minority do still have specific language problems that persist when they enter school, which may result in a specific language impairment diagnosis.

He suggested that the best thing parents can do is to provide a rich language learning environment for their children by reading to them, speaking with them and getting down on the floor and playing with them. Early intervention is also key, he added, an opinion that Hefets -- who was not associated with the Pediatrics study -- echoed.

"I'd say it's always better to err on the side of caution," she said. "Whether your child is going to just be a late bloomer or truly language disordered, the benefit of an evaluation -- or even speech therapy if that ends up being necessary -- is there across the board."

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