Developmental Delays And Behavioral Issues In Children

a displeased girl screaming in anger

If you are wondering whether developmental delays in children can cause behavioral issues in children, then this article is for you!


by Mikki Stone | Certified Behavioral Specialist and creator of the Ask Mikki column–a Q&A column dedicated to helping parents navigate behavioral issues with their children. You can follow her on Instagram @mikkigaffentstone.

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Hi Mikki,

I have heard that developmental delays can bring about behavioral issues in children, and I think my five-year-old daughter Cheyanne might have something like that going on. She doesn’t have a diagnosis, so how do I know? She gets so mad and throws fits when I tell her to do something, and I am tired of asking. Her sister doesn’t react like that and she’s younger!

– Anita L.

Hello Anita,

Thank you for your question! Is there something that stops you from asking your doctor for a diagnosis? This is worth looking into with your doctor, if you haven’t already, so you know for sure and can get help when you need it.

This can be tricky in some ways because developmental delays in children are not always obvious, but they can result in behaviors you’d rather not see and don’t understand why they are happening. For instance, a child who can speak clearly and fluently may not understand all she hears. This is the difference between expressive language and receptive language. So, she may speak better than she understands. She may say things that fit the circumstances, but she picked up the context from listening to others. Meanwhile, what she understands when someone talks to her could easily be a full grade lower and go unnoticed unless you specifically look for a receptive language delay.

What has this got to do with behavior? Well, kids know they’re expected to do things when an adult tells them, but if there is a receptive delay, the child may respond with a tantrum or by refusing to do as asked. This behavior is masking her lack of understanding, and she’s letting you know, loudly, that she has a problem. She may tantrum from frustration when she gets it wrong for example, and she may refuse whatever you ask, having misunderstood what was said.

This is particularly tricky with smart children because when this kind of language delay goes unrecognized by teachers and parents, the child may end up labelled as ‘a behavior problem’ or ‘stubborn.’

Checking for understanding can solve a whole lot of behavioral problems before they start.

  1. Ask her to tell you what she heard you say or what she understands you want her to do. Note: repeating your words back to you doesn’t let you know what she understood. 
  2. If she did not understand you fully, try again with less words, more direction. Break the task down into parts. Give her a few steps to do at a time if the task is complex or long.
  3. Ask her what she needs to complete the task, then provide it. Of course, she may not be able to tell you, but it is always worth trying.
  4.  Say what you mean clearly and mean what you say. Using abstract concepts (be polite, for example) can be confusing. There is no definition for the child to work with! We often say things that we expect the child to understand, forgetting that they do not have the brain development, nor the life experience that adults have. They hear things differently to us!
  5. It’s worth noting that if you get annoyed and frustrated, so will she. Then neither of you will have a good outcome.
  6. When you need to tell her to stop doing something, have a replacement behavior in mind. Something you DO want her to do. No one simply ‘stops’ what they are doing without doing something else instead. You have an opportunity to guide her towards the behaviors you want to see. Bonus points for you both if you can give her a replacement that meets the same needs she was aiming for in the first place! Was she looking for noise? How about singing? Or can she make noise outside? Playground? How about adding movement such as jumping jacks to the sounds she wants to make? Be as creative as you like and have fun!

To All Parents:

If you suspect, or know, that your child has developmental delays, seek services to help you and in the meantime, provide support where needed. This means both offering a helping hand where needed and standing back when your child doesn’t need help. Looking for ways to bridge that developmental gap for her will help your child be and feel successful. A successful child is less likely to have tantrums or other behavioral outbursts.

Let me know how it works out for you! – Mikki


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