What do Narratives and Pediatric Psychiatric Impairments Have in Common?

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High comorbidity between language and psychiatric disorders has been well documented (Beitchman, Cohen, Konstantaras, & Tannock, 1996; Cohen, Barwick, Horodezky, Vallence, & Im, 1998; Toppelberg & Shapiro, 2000). However, a lesser known fact is that there’s also a significant under-diagnosis of language impairments in children with psychiatric disorders.

In late 90’s, a study by Cohen, Barwick, Horodezky, Vallance, & Im (1998) found that 40% of children between the ages of 7 and 14 referred solely for psychiatric problems had a language impairment that had not been previously suspected.

Several decades later not much has changed. Hollo, Wehby, & Oliver (2014) did a meta-analysis of 22 studies, which reported results of language assessments in children with emotional and behavioral disturbances, EBD, with no prior history of language impairment (LI). They found that more than 80% of these children displayed below average language performance on standardized assessments (1–2 SD below the mean on a single measure) and 46.5% of these children qualified for criteria of moderate-severe LI (>2 SD below the mean on a single measure).

The above illustrates that children with psychiatric impairments often spend years “under the radar” without the recognition from medical and educational professionals that they present with difficulty adequately comprehending and expressing language. This is particularly damaging because good language development is critically important in order for psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapies to be effective for the child. Without relevant speech-language intervention services, psychotherapy referrals are rendered virtually useless, since those children who lack adequate linguistic abilities would not make meaningful therapeutic gains even after spending years in psychotherapy.

Narrative abilities are “highly relevant for the child psychiatry population as means for both psychotherapeutic evaluation (Emde, Wolf, & Oppenheim, 2003) and intervention (Angus & McLeod, 2004; Chaika, 2000; Gardner, 1993)”.  That is why it is crucial that language impairments be “identified, taken into account, and remediated (Losh & Capps, 2003)” (Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 245).

Over a two-year period, Pearce and colleagues (2014) assessed 48 children, 6–12 years old who were admitted: “for a four-week diagnostic period to the Child Psychiatry Inpatient Unit in a children’s hospital”. The children selected for the study had a minimum IQ of 85, had passed a hearing test and did not present with any acute psychotic symptoms (e.g., delusions, hallucinations, etc.). The children were administered the core subtests of The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals–4 (CELF-4) as well as the Test of Narrative Language (TNL).

Study results found that:

  1. “The mean scores for less complex core language production and comprehension were in the average range”, whereas the mean narrative-production scores on the TNL were in the clinical range. In other words: “These children perhaps had acquired foundational language skills sufficient for functional communication and produced verbal output at a rate and complexity not noticeably different from their peers, particularly with the overlay of social or emotional disturbance, yet had impaired discourse skills difficult to detect in the typical psychiatric interview, psychotherapy session, or classroom setting” (Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 253).
  2. The study also found a significant correlation between narratives and social skills (but not between core language and social skills). That is because, in contrast to general language tests, which assess basic constructs such as vocabulary and grammar and often require single word responses, storytelling involves a number of higher order skills such as sequencing, emotion processing, perspective taking, pragmatic presupposition, gauging the listener’s level of interest, etc., which children with psychiatric impairments understandably lack.
  3. Consequently, the authors concluded that: “More than half the children in our complex population not previously diagnosed with language impairment were identified as having impaired language when higher-level discourse skills, measured by narrative ability, were tested in addition to core language abilities.”(Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 257)

Additionally, it is important to note that the above study utilized two fairly basic language measures and was still able to attain very significant results. It is strongly speculated that if the study was conducted in the present and utilized a general language test such as the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy the results would have been even more dramatic and the impairment would have extended to language abilities as well as narratives.

So the takeaway messages are as follows:

  1. Do not assume that children who present with challenging behaviors are merely “acting out” and present with intact language abilities. Assess them in order to confirm/rule out a language disorder (and make a relevant psychiatric referral if needed).
  2. Do not assume that children with emotional and behavioral disturbances are ONLY behaviorally/psychiatrically impaired and have average language abilities. Consequently, perform necessary testing in order to confirm/rule out the presence of concomitant language disorder.
  3. General language tests such do NOT directly test children’s narrative abilities or social language skills. Thus, many children can attain average scores on these tests yet still present with pervasive higher order language deficits, so more sensitive testing IS NEEDED
  4. Don’t ascribe linguistic deficits to externalizing symptomology (e.g., impulsivity, anxiety, inattention, challenging behaviors, etc.)  when the cause of it may in actuality be an undiagnosed language impairment. Perform a thorough assessment of higher-order linguistic abilities to ensure that the child receives the best possible care in order to optimally function in social and academic settings.

Helpful Resources:


  • Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.) (2004). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy. London, UK: Sage Publications
  • Beitchman, J., Cohen, N., Konstantareas, M., & Tannock, R. (Eds.) (1996). Language, learning and behaviour disorders: Developmental, biological and clinical perspectives. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chaika, E. (2000). Linguistics, pragmatics and psychotherapy. London, UK: Whurr Publishers
  • Cohen, N., Barwick, M., Horodezky, N., Vallance, D., & Im, N. (1998). Language, achievement, and cognitive processing in psychiatrically disturbed children with previously identified and unsuspected language impairments. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 865–877.
  • Cohen, N., & Horodezky, N. (1998). Prevalence of language impairments in psychiatrically referred children at different ages: Preschool to adolescence [Letter to the editor]. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35, 461–262.
  • Emde, R., Wolf, D., & Oppenheim, D. (Eds.) (2003). Revealing the inner worlds of young children—The MacArthur story stem battery. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Gardner, R. (1993). Storytelling in psychotherapy with children. London, UK: Jason Aronson.
  • Hollo, A., Wehby, J. H., & Oliver, R. O.  (2014). Unsuspected language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders: A meta-analysis. Exceptional Children, Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 169-186.
  • Losh, M., & Capps, L. (2003). Narrative ability in high-functioning children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 239–251.
  • Pearce, P. et al. (2014). Use of narratives to assess language disorders in an inpatient pediatric psychiatric population. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry, 19(2) 244-259.
  • Toppelberg, C., & Shapiro, T. (2000). Language disorders: A 10-year research update review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 143–152.
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