Speech and language challenges and mental health

Children with speech and language challenges have a much higher risk of mental health problems. Research tells us that: 

  • 81% of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have significant language difficulties, often unidentified (1) 
  • Between 40% and 54% of children with spoken language difficulties have been found to have behaviour problems (2,3)
  • In addition to the above, support for mental health is usually in the form of “talking therapies” which are very difficult for children who have speech and language challenges to access. 

Will all children with speech and language challenges have problems with mental health?   

It’s true that there is a link between speech, language and communication skills and mental health, however the relationship between the two areas is complex. It isn’t inevitable that all children with challenges in one area will have problems in the other. However, children who have speech and language challenges are more at risk of mental health problems as they get older, which is why it’s really important to get the right support in place early. 

What can I do to help a child who might be struggling? 

  • Keep an eye out for potential challenges with talking and understanding words. The signs may not always be obvious, but when you spot children displaying difficulties with learning, literacy, behaviour, friendships or mental health, have a closer look at their speech, language and communication skills.  

There are lots of resources available on the Speech and Language UK website to help with this, including the free progress checker

  • Use visual supports to help children reflect on behavioural incidents after they’ve occurred and talk about on how they and others were feeling. Visuals such as emotion picture cards and comic strip conversations or drawing can be helpful. 
  • Support children’s understanding by talking slowly and clearly, pausing often, and using simple words you know they will understand. This is especially important when trying to talk to a child who is upset or frustrated. 
  • Check that your school behaviour policy includes reference to the links between speech, language and communication skills and behaviour and mental health.   
  • Check your Local Offer to see what support might be available for children and young people who have mental health needs and/or speech and language challenges. 

Speech, language and communication skills and mental health 

Speech, language and communication skills are vital skills that impact on many other areas, including mental health. There is lots of evidence to show that children’s speech, language and communication skills and their mental health are linked.  

Why are communication skills important for mental health? 

We use our communication skills to:  

  • Talk about how we are feeling 
  • Understand how others are feeling 
  • Resolve conflicts and negotiate with others. 

Children who have challenges talking and understanding words may struggle in other areas, including with learning at school, making friends and interacting socially with others. They may also struggle with poor mental health.  

Organisations who can offer help 


  1. Hollo, A., Wehby, J. H., & Oliver, R. M. (2014). Unidentified language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders: a meta-analysis. Exceptional Children (80(2), 169-186
  2. van Daal, J., Verhoeven, L., & van Balkom, H. (2007). Behaviour problems in children with language impairment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(11), 1139-1147 
  3. Maggio, V., Grañana, N. E., Richaudeau, A., Torres, S., Giannotti, A. & Suburo, A. M., 2014, Behavior problems in children with specific language impairment, Journal of Child Neurology, 29(2), 194-202