How to Cope with Tantrums and Toddler Speech Delay

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By Lori Ennis, M.S. Ed.

It’s the hardest thing in the world for a parent to watch; their precious little one wants desperately to express emotions and feelings, but because of speech delays in receptive or expressive language (or in both areas), they simply can’t. If you are dealing with tantrums in your toddler with speech delay, you are not alone.

Perhaps they just don’t have the words to express what they need. Or, maybe they do have the words, but they have difficulty either retrieving the appropriate words and/or saying them to get their point across. When the world is already so new to them, their emotions and feelings can overwhelm their ability to control their growing self-control, and adverse behaviors can arise. Toddler speech delay tantrums are not unusual when there is frustration and not being able to be understood, and sadly, speech delay and behavioral problems in toddlers often go hand-in-hand if a child doesn’t have strategies and coping mechanisms to communicate effectively. 

speech delay behavior

Speech Delay and Behavioral Problems in Toddlers: Signs of the Future?

It’s important to pay attention to your child’s tantrums and what the root causes of said tantrums may be. While a typical toddler will often tantrum simply because she’s overwhelmed with sensory input or hungry or tired or it’s a random Tuesday in July, if you see a pattern of outbursts occur especially as your child is trying to communicate with you, take note. A 29-year-study on the effect of speech delays in children on their adult literacy and mental health found that children who had signs of delay in their receptive language skills when they were five-years-old showed a higher likelihood to have mental health issues when they were 34-years-old, compared to their peers who did not have speech delays.

No, this doesn’t mean that toddlers who have speech delays are bound for mental health issues as adults. But, it does show a correlation between speech delay and behavior problems in toddlers that can lead to more significant issues in their adulthood if not addressed. 

And, let’s face it…toddler speech delay tantrums are heartbreaking to watch. You know your child is desperate to communicate, and their frustration leads them to behaviors they can’t control, and you’d give anything to stop for them, particularly if they lead to aggressive behavior.

toddler speech delay tantrums

Speech Delay Toddler Hitting: When Frustration Turns Physical

Though often toddler speech delay tantrums may just include a lot of loud crying and whining, often in young children, physical aggression is a way to cope with their frustration. Think about how hard it must be for a developing lower (or limbic) brain to maintain emotional control and regulation when they’re desperate to get a point across or relay a need and they just can’t. Toddler tantrums occur when a little one is overwhelmed with that frustration and their amygdala (a brain ‘alarm’ that tells the child that their distress needs to signal for help from their parents—often in the form of crying or yelling. 

The problem is, that’s necessary for newborns and infants because they have no other way to alert their parents to issues. They are not even close to having the reasoning skills or abilities to detect and relay their needs and wants.

But toddlers can. Toddlers have learned, though in a limited fashion, about their likes and dislikes; their preferences and their desires. They learn something new minute by minute it seems, and they’re often eager to show and tell us. 

When a speech delay prevents them from doing so, their prefrontal cortexes just can’t contain the stress hormones that are released as a result of their frustration, and real rage occurs. It’s this rage that fuels physical aggression, and speech delay toddler hitting is not uncommon at all because this rage prevents them from accessing any logic or reason, and prevents us, as their parents and caregivers from doing so either. 

The most important thing a parent can do when they suspect their toddler’s meltdown and hitting is because of a  communication issue is to gently and calmly redirect their behavior. That means that you need to stop the hitting, and firmly, but with kindness immediately. As you do, you can repeat, “We don’t use our hands/feet/teeth to hurt…” gently as you redirect or remove them from the situation. Be careful when using the common phrase, “Use your words,” as speech delay and behavioral problems in toddlers can be exacerbated when using their words is the issue in the first place. 

If you’re in the middle of a group of toddlers and toddler speech delay tantrums rear their not-so-pretty heads, remove your child and yourself from the situation. If you’re by yourself with your child, redirect your child’s behavior and work to figure out what they are trying to communicate to you. Often, when toddlers with speech delays feel understood and heard, the inappropriate behavior settles down as well. 

Toddler Speech Delay Tantrums Behavior Management: Making A Difference For Your Child

There are a handful of other behavior management skills you can utilize when your toddler is having a tantrum because of a speech delay issue. It’s a given that if they are hitting or hurting themselves or others, you want to stop that behavior and redirect.

But as you do so, you’ll also want to be patient. Remember that the tantrum your child is throwing is not personal; he or she most likely just learned to walk and is barely out of diapers, if they even are.  Their tantrum has nothing to do with your parenting style or what they think about you; it’s everything to do with what they are trying to express and cannot.

Be patient with your child as he or she is trying to communicate, even if their frustration leads to ugly behavior. Your calming presence will be a constant for them as they learn how to compensate for their delay and communicate despite it. In that, try to practice effective communication skills (to the best of their ability) with them once the tantrum has settled. (You’ll never get anywhere with them during the tantrum; their brain is on fight mode and has to calm down.) 

speech delay hitting

Share that you were also frustrated for them because you knew they were trying to say something very important and were having a hard time. Help develop their speech skills by talking, talking, talking to them as well as reading, reading, reading to them and giving them every opportunity you can to say whatever they can or want.

Don’t worry if the articulation or enunciation or pronunciation is accurate; praise the attempt to communicate, particularly if your child has few words or is non-verbal. Non-verbal children also have ways they can communicate, so practice those skills with them so the next time something needs to be expressed, you both may be able to understand better and prevent a future tantrum.

All too often, speech delay and behavioral problems in toddlers seem like unavoidable partners, but that’s all the more reason to seek early intervention. The earlier a child gets intervention for speech delays, the more successful the intervention is likely to be, and the more likely the child is to catch up to peers in communication. Don’t hesitate to access resources like Toddler Speech Boost, and to contact a licensed speech-language pathologist who can help put your toddler back on the path to catching up!