Childhood vocabulary can predict future emotional regulation

childhood vocabulary, emotional regulation
© Noriko Cooper

Researchers find that expressive vocabulary at the age of 5-7 can predict likelihood of good emotional regulation, four years later

Education experts have various theories about children, implementing different types of teaching across the world in line with regional understandings of how best a child will become an adult. Language is a universal indicator of progress, one which can give parents and caregivers multiple levels of worry – is my child speaking enough? Is my child developing?

When it comes down to it, 7% of the worlds’ children are known to have developmental language disorder (DLD).

What is DLD?

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) means that a child has significant, ongoing difficulties understanding and using spoken language, in all the languages used by that child. DLD was previously known as Specific Language Impairment (SLI).

However, there is no agreed upon or known cause of this disorder – leaving a vacuum around concerned parents and caregivers. DLD is not triggered by emotional difficulties, like depression can be, or limited exposure to language, like other language disorders can be.

Scientists look deeper into DLD and childhood

Now, researchers have run cohesive investigations into the childhood roots of DLD. They analysed the experiences of differences in emotional regulation, between children and adolescents diagnosed with DLD.

Through this comparison, they hoped to understand how elements of emotional regulation are related to language difficulties.

Nadia Ahufinger, lead co-author of the research, said: “There are still few studies that assess the emotional and social dimension of the child and adolescent population with SLI/DLD, which is why we wanted to delve into the study of emotional regulation in this population.”

SLI stands for Specific Language Impairment, which is the same as DLD.

Published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, this study is conducted by researchers from the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL), included in the eHealth Center at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the University of Barcelona (UB).

Vocabulary of a child aged 5-7 can predict emotional regulation

According to their insights, the team found that childhood vocabulary can be significant for indicating how individuals regulate their emotions.

Mari Aguilera, an expert from the University of Barcelona and other lead co-author, said: “When analysing the relationship between language and emotional regulation, we observed that the expressive vocabulary that children have at 5-7 years of age predicts their emotional regulation 4 years later, a relationship not seen during adolescence.”

Is there a gender difference in emotional regulation?


After three studies on over fifty children and adolescents, the authors say that emotional regulation between boys and girls – with and without DLD – are similar. There is no inherent difference based on gender, in contrast to popular descriptions of girls as more emotional while boys are seen as less expressive.

The only difference here is between the participants that do and don’t have DLD. Those with the developmental language disorder are more likely to have difficulty regulating their emotions when older.

The role of the parent in emotional regulation?

“How the parents regulate their emotions is a very important factor in explaining their children’s ability to deal with emotions during childhood. However, it seems that, during adolescence, the influence of parental emotional regulation diminishes significantly,” the authors said.

In a separate study, a team at the University of Georgia found that abused parents do not teach their children emotional skills. That research did find a difference in regulation based on gender, but the element of abuse is also present – whereas this study focuses on DLD.

While there were no gender differences found in this study, the research team noted something unusual – the parental interest was definitely gender-divided.

While both mothers and fathers were included in the research, 83% of the responses were given by mothers. This signifies a level of childcare is still done by the mother, creating more questions about the divide in emotional labour in most homes.

The authors commented: “Focusing on fathers is important in order to reconsider their role in the care of their children, and to make changes in a patriarchal society that continues to place the burden of childcare on women.”

Read the full study here.


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