Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Speaking vs. Screaming: The Influence of Language Development on Children's Angry Behavior

On the Internet and elsewhere, parents who have adopted children from foreign institutions often express their distress about the children’s angry or violent behavior, tantrums, and “meltdowns”. Although research like that of Michael Rutter has repeatedly shown that delayed language development (not just the learning of the adopted family’s language) is the most common result of early life in an institution, few of the concerns parents speak of are related to language problems.

Is there any connection between the parents’ reports about angry behavior and the researchers’ statements about language development? It’s plausible that there should be, especially if we have to add to language delays the additional challenge of learning a second language. Adults and other children typically talk to institution-reared children as if they expect understanding at the level indicated by the child’s size, but even if the speech is at a relatively low level because of earlier growth problems, the adoptee may respond with frustrated incomprehension. Both adults and other children may interpret this behavior as disobedience, noncompliance, rebellion, unfriendliness, even active hostility, when in fact it may just indicate that a child has no idea what is happening and no way to express frustration verbally.

The same anger problems can occur with nonadopted children  whose language development is slow--  not slow in the sense of when the first word occurs, but slow in terms of the communicative exchanges that usually develop between 18 and 24 months.  A recent study (Roben, Cole, & Armstrong, “Longitudinal relations among language skills, anger expression, and regulatory strategies in early childhood”, Child Development, 84(3), 891-905)  demonstrated that the connection between language and angry behavior is not just plausible, but can be shown by watching children as they develop between 18 and 48 months of age.

The authors suggested that good language development in young children should enable them to think about rules they have been taught, to communicate their needs to adults, and to distract themselves from a frustrating situation by play and imagination. To examine how these predictions work out empirically, the researchers had mothers and children experience situations that was frustrating for the child. At 6-month intervals, the child was given an uninteresting toy, but allowed to see a shiny gift-wrapped package which had to be waited for while the mother did some “work” by filling out a questionnaire. The wait time was 8 minutes. (By the way, here’s an insight into the reality of research on mothers and children: the mothers had to be given their instructions beforehand to prevent them from bursting out laughing when they saw what was going on!) While the children waited to open the fancy gift, their facial expressions of anger, neutrality, or happiness  were recorded, and so were other behaviors like speech to the mother or making faces at themselves in the one-way mirror. Roben and her colleagues had also taken speech samples from the children talking at home and employed several tests of language development.

Children whose early language skills were good, and who continued to develop language rapidly after the toddler period, showed less quick, intense, and sustained anger by preschool age. “Children whose language skills increased more than other children’s appeared less frustrated by a delay for a reward at preschool age, and the nature of their anger expressions improved more over time. Moreover, these relations between language skill and anger expression were partially explained by children’s initiation of regulatory strategies. Language skills were associated with initiation of calm support seeking [from mother] at 36 months of age and of distraction at 48 months of age, both of which were associated with less angry expressions by preschool age.”

As Roben and her colleagues point out, there may be some other explanations for these connections than that good language development enables children to wait and stay calmer than they could manage with poor language skills. Children who are unusually angry by temperament may have their anger interfere with language learning, and parents faced with a very angry child may not do as much of the talking that helps to support early language development. However, the connections found between early language skill and later control of anger were stronger than other associations that were studied.

To go back to the original topic of this post, anger and poor language development in children adopted from institutions: what does this research suggest about interventions for such adoptive families? One thought is that the current constant emphasis on re-working emotional attachment may be self-defeating when other aspects of development are ignored. Assessments of language development and interventions as needed may be the steps that help post-institutional children to become self-regulated and comfortable. But such assessments and interventions require evaluators who are fluent in the child’s first language as well as in speech and language, and although there are such people, they are very few, and almost exclusively to be found in large cities.



  1. Quite applicable for many children in the U.S. foster care system as well, especially if they suffered great neglect in their birth family, specifically educational neglect and/or social isolation, which resulted in language delays, especially in expressive language. I wonder if we might learn anything useful by looking at the interventions that professionals use for older autistic children who are nonverbal, many of whom are prone to outbursts of anger. Seems like those outbursts (or "meltdowns") might arise from a similar kind of frustration.

  2. how about adopted children with no language. Is this drugs? Is this birth parents? Do these children ever speak?

    1. Children adopted from institutions often have language delays and need specialized speech therapy which is rarely available except in big cities. Some possible reasons for this can be hereditary hearing impairments,premature birth, undetected or untreated ear infections in early life, or a lack of exposure to the spoken language. Language learning works best if babies often hear speech against a quiet background and if that speech is interesting to them because of its pitch and intonation.

      As for children with no language at all, this is unusual, but could be associated with autism, or with situations where a child has been deprived of social stimulation for many years (for instance, the famous case of "Genie".)