For Parents

For Parents

Terrible twos, threenagers, and beyond

Do children with language difficulties have trouble with behavior?

What are problem behaviors?

Problem behaviors include a wide variety of actions such as aggression, irritability, and refusing to do something. Managing problem behaviors in children can be challenging for parents and professionals alike. While we might think of problem behaviors as general “acting out,” researchers tend to categorize them one of two ways:

Internalizing behaviors: Behaviors we cannot always see. These are usually symptoms related to depression or anxiety (e.g. social withdrawal)

Externalizing behaviors: Behaviors that we can usually see. These are usually disruptive and sometimes aggressive (e.g. hyperactivity, hitting, biting)


Why might problem behaviors be related to language difficulties?

Scientists have noticed a link between problem behaviors and language delays or disorders for decades. We do not yet know if language disorders cause problem behaviors, just that they are related. Language disorders have also been associated with other difficulties at school and with peers. Behavior is likely impacted by a child’s ability to effectively communicate in different settings.


What did the researchers study?

In this paper, the researchers read and analyzed all the previous research that looked at the relationship between language difficulties and problem behaviors. This type of study (called a meta-analysis) allowed the researchers to combine past data that compared children with language difficulties to children who were typically developing. The researchers were also interested in whether or not children with language difficulties had trouble with a certain category of behavior (remember, internalizing and externalizing behaviors).


Are problem behaviors more common in children with language difficulties?

Yes! This study confirmed scientists’ observations that children with language difficulties do indeed demonstrate more problem behaviors than typically developing children. The researchers found no difference between internalizing and externalizing behaviors. So, while children may have more difficulty with behavior overall, we cannot predict what type of behaviors children with language difficulties might exhibit compared to their peers.


What else contributes to problem behaviors in children with language difficulties?

Age contributes to problem behaviors in children with language difficulties! As children get older, problem with behaviors become more severe. Interestingly, teachers reported more higher levels of problem behaviors than parents.

Caution: the researchers found that teacher report was related to age (since older children are in school). Still, it might be important to think about your child’s teacher as a team member when managing difficult behaviors.



For parents: Talk to your speech-language pathologist about learning strategies to help with early communication if your child has a language delay, and be sure to also ask about related behavior services.

 For clinicians: Recommend assessments for both internalizing and externalizing behaviors for children on your caseload if you are concerned. Utilize the child’s pediatrician, teacher, and other professionals to develop a cohesive plan for addressing problem behaviors.



Curtis PR, Frey JR, Watson CD, Hampton, LH, & Roberts, MY. Language Disorders and Problem Behaviors: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2018;142(2):e20173551