Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review

, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 352–367 | Cite as

The Role of Language Skill in Child Psychopathology: Implications for Intervention in the Early Years

  • Karen SalmonEmail author
  • Richard O’Kearney
  • Elaine Reese
  • Clare-Ann Fortune


In this narrative review, we suggest that children’s language skill should be targeted in clinical interventions for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties in the preschool years. We propose that language skill predicts childhood emotional and behavioral problems and this relationship may be mediated by children’s self-regulation and emotion understanding skills. In the first sections, we review recent high-quality longitudinal studies which together demonstrate that that children’s early language skill predicts: (1) emotional and behavioral problems, and this relationship is stronger than the reverse pattern; (2) self-regulation skill; this pattern may be stronger than the reverse pattern but moderated by child age. Findings also suggest that self-regulation skill mediates the relation between early language skill and children’s emotional and behavioral problems. There is insufficient evidence regarding the mediating role of emotion understanding. In subsequent sections, we review evidence demonstrating that: (1) particular kinds of developmentally targeted parent–child conversations play a vital role in the development of language skill, and (2) some current clinical interventions, directly or indirectly, have a beneficial impact on children’s vocabulary and narrative skills, but most approaches are ad hoc. Targeting language via parent–child conversation has the potential to improve the outcomes of current clinical interventions in the preschool years.


Language Child Parent–child conversation Psychopathology Self-regulation Emotion competence Clinical intervention 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Standards

Where studies conducted by the authors are reported in this review, all procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained for all individual participants in those studies.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Research School of PsychologyThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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