What we need to know about childhood trauma and narrative language skills

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Childhood maltreatment is an unfortunate reality, and we know that children who have experienced trauma are also likely to have lower language skills. The authors of this study looked specifically at narrative language skills in children removed from their homes because of maltreatment. Why narrative? Victims of suspected maltreatment are likely to be interviewed as part of criminal cases, and the interviews may be the only evidence of what happened to them. When the stakes are that high, it’s crucial that we know about these children’s narrative ability.

The authors tested a group of elementary-aged children who were living away from their biological parents (with a relative, in foster care, or in a care facility) due to neglect and/or abuse. Children completed standardized tests of narrative and general language ability. Children’s narrative results were mixed, but 42% scored in the lower range, and they showed the most difficulty with producing (vs. comprehending) narratives. General language ability was related to narrative ability, but not perfectly. Children whose caregivers had lower levels of education also tended to have lower narrative skills. 

So what can we do about this? As a field, we can increase awareness about the impact of early experiences on language development and on children’s ability to report their experiences. In our practice, we can assess narrative production in children who’ve experienced trauma or who’ve had difficult home lives and help those children build crucial narrative skills. And of course, we can be part of the village that steps in to give support to the children who need it most. 

 

Snow, P. C., Timms, L., Lum, J. A. G., & Powell, M. B. (2019). Narrative language skills of maltreated children living in out-of-home care. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. doi:10.1080/17549507.2019.1598493.