Investigating the role of friendships and family support in protecting against mental health difficulties in children with Developmental Language Disorder

Supervisor: Dr Umar Toseeb

A) Rationale for the project

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is characterised by difficulties in the ability to use and learn spoken language (Conti-Ramsden, St Clair, Pickles, & Durkin, 2012).  Affected children have problems putting words together to formulate sentences (expressive language) and/or understanding the words that are being said (receptive language).  The prevalence of DLD is ~7% (Norbury et al., 2016)

In the general population, social support from family and friends mediates the relationship between childhood adversity and subsequent depressive symptoms (van Harmelen et al., 2016). Children with DLD have poorer quality friendships compared to their unaffected peers (Durkin & Conti-Ramsden, 2007). What is less clear is the extent to which the valence of these friendships and family relationships contributes to mental health difficulties in children with DLD. Most of the previous work on this topic has focussed on the negative aspects of friendships, such as peer problems (Mok, Pickles, Durkin, & Conti-Ramsden, 2014). Much less attention has been focussed on the positive aspects of friendships and family relationships, such as closeness, common interest, mutual psychological support, empathy, and prosociality.  An investigation into these positive constructs will allow for the identification of the strengths and weaknesses in children with DLD.  If, as predicted, positive friendships and family relationships are associated with fewer mental health difficulties, and these are identified as areas of weakness for children with DLD, then this will advance our understanding of the antecedents of mental health and difficulties in children with DLD. 

B) References that should be read (if you do not have access to these, please email

Conti-Ramsden, G., St Clair, M. C., Pickles, A., & Durkin, K. (2012). Developmental Trajectories of Verbal and Nonverbal Skills in Individuals With a History of Specific Language Impairment: From Childhood to Adolescence. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 55(6), 1716-1735. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2012/10-0182)

Durkin, K., & Conti-Ramsden, G. (2007). Language, social behavior, and the quality of friendships in adolescents with and without a history of specific language impairment. Child Dev, 78(5), 1441-1457. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01076.x

Mok, P. L. H., Pickles, A., Durkin, K., & Conti-Ramsden, G. (2014). Longitudinal trajectories of peer relations in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(5), 516-527. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12190

Norbury, C. F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., . . . Pickles, A. (2016). The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: evidence from a population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(11), 1247-1257. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12573

van Harmelen, A. L., Gibson, J. L., St Clair, M. C., Owens, M., Brodbeck, J., Dunn, V., . . . Goodyer, I. M. (2016). Friendships and Family Support Reduce Subsequent Depressive Symptoms in At-Risk Adolescents. PLoS One, 11(5), e0153715. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153715

C) Research aims / questions

  1. How do children with DLD compare to those without DLD on positive friendships and family relationships?
  2. How are these effects (1) different for children in primary and secondary school?
  3. To what extent are positive friendships and family relationships associated with better mental health outcomes in children with DLD?
  4. How are these effects (3) different for children with and without DLD?

D) Methods

Children with DLD and their parents (and those without as controls) will be recruited from schools and local support services.  Parents and children will be asked to complete questionnaires and/or take part in structured assessments about positive friendships and family relationships, mental health, language and communication difficulties, and sociodemographic information. The data will be analysed using quantitative analysis.