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The More Toddlers Speak, the Less Angry They Become

Pennsylvania researchers connect children’s speech with their ability to manage anger.

Toddler-- by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

Helping children develop early language skills can help them more effectively deal with frustration. Toddlers with more developed language skills are less likely to express anger by the time they're in preschool, according to a new longitudinal study from researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

"This is the first longitudinal evidence of early language abilities predicting later aspects of anger regulation," said lead study author Pamela M. Cole, Liberal Arts Research Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

The research, published in the journal Child Development, examined whether developing language skills could help young ones control their anger.

Temper tantrums are common outbursts for toddlers and can range from whining and crying to screaming and hitting. But by the time children start school, teachers expect them to have more self-control. To help them acquire this skill, they're taught to use language skills like "using your words."

Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families recommends that parents help children develop a “feelings” vocabulary.

“Sometimes parents are afraid that talking about an intense feeling will escalate it; but many times the opposite happens: when children feel that their feelings and experiences are respected, they are often able to move on more easily,” according to the Zero to Three website.

The Expert Take

“Better language skills may help children verbalize rather than use emotions to convey needs and use their imaginations to occupy themselves while enduring a frustrating wait," says Cole.

We need to put to rest the old saying that "children should be seen and not heard," according to the Early Childhood-Head Start Task Force. Research shows that having opportunities to talk and listen with parents and peers helps children gain language skills related to reading and writing.

“Daily conversations with children are an excellent way for parents to model basic communication skills,” wrote Elena Neitlich, owner and CEO of Moms On Edge, on her blog. “Deliberate conversations with children, using polite conversational skills, help lay a foundation for good communication later in life.”

Source and Method

Researchers looked at more than 100 children during 18 to 48 months of age from families above poverty but below middle income. With home and lab visits, they measured children's language and their ability to cope with tasks that might elicit frustration.

In one task, children were asked to wait eight minutes before opening a gift while their moms finished "work," which was a series of questions about how the child usually coped with waiting. Anger and regulatory strategies were observed while they were waiting. The children used a variety of strategies, including asking questions like, "Mom, are you done yet?" or "I wonder what it is?" and distracting themselves from the gift by, for instance, making up a story or counting aloud.

The Takeaway

Parents should continue to help children develop their communication skills to help learn how to cope with frustration and anger.

The new research found that children with better language skills as toddlers expressed less anger at four years of age than those with less developed speaking skills. They were also more likely to seek their mother's support while waiting when they were three years old, which in turn predicted less anger at four years old, and were better able to occupy themselves when they were four.

Other Research

A 2012 study found that toddlers are more likely to get upset and act out if their parents express anger more often. They also found a genetic component, especially in children who inherit a genetic risk of negative emotionality from their birth mothers but were raised in a low-stress or less reactive family environment.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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