For Parents

For Parents

Talking Tots and the Terrible Twos

A research study on early language and disruptive behavior in toddlers.

Do you wonder about your child’s negative behavior? Are you constantly thinking, “Should my child be talking more”? Mothers report language delay and disruptive behavior as their main concerns regarding their children’s development. The Early Intervention Research Group (EIRG) at Northwestern University decided to take a deeper look into the possible connection between children’s language skills and disruptive behavior.


What was the study?

The study consisted of 1,259 mothers with children between 18 and 36 months. Mothers were contacted via email and asked to fill out questionnaires about their children’s communication and language development, their children’s behavior, and their family income. The sample of mothers and children represented a diverse group of families that differed in terms of ethnicities, household income, and mother’s level of education.


What did they find?

The researchers found an association between early language abilities and disruptive behavior. In other words, children with better language also had fewer disruptive behaviors. This was true as early as 18 months old.

However, these findings only show an association and do not prove a direct cause and effect relationship between language and disruptive behavior. It’s likely that other factors also influence the relationship between the two. The authors suggest that a stressful environment could impact both children’s ability to learn language and their ability to learn how to self-regulate their emotions resulting in low language skills and disruptive behaviors such as tantrums. On the other hand, it could be that children’s language delays negatively impact their ability to participate in social interactions which leads them to show more disruptive behaviors such as aggression.

The questionnaires the researchers collected showed that the association between language and disruptive behavior was influenced by sex and family income. The association was stronger for female children than male children, and it was stronger for children who live in poverty compared to those in families whose income was above the poverty line.


How does this impact me and my child?

Results from the study suggest toddlers’ disruptive behavior is connected to their language skills. A real world example would be a young girl with a language delay, who is kicking and screaming because she wants a snack. The child is likely demonstrating this negative behavior because she does not have the language skills to communicate effectively to her parent that she is hungry. Instead, she is having a tantrum to show she is hungry. As a parent with a toddler, you can think about your child’s behaviors as communication. If your child is having difficulty verbally communicating with you and instead is engaging in negative behaviors, you can ask yourself, “What is my child trying to communicate to me through his or her behavior?”



Roberts, M. Y., Curtis, P., Estabrook, R., Norton, E. S., Davis, M. M., Burns, J., … & Wakschlag, L. S. (2018). Talking Tots and the Terrible Twos: Early Language and Disruptive Behavior in Toddlers. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000615