Time to Talk: Understanding & Helping Children Who Stutter
When a child repeats a beginning sound of a word or a beginning syllable, or pauses for a long time before speaking, or says filler words like “um, um, um,” parents wonder if their child is a stutterer. As listeners, we feel the effort and anxiety the child is experiencing to get their words out. We feel helpless, uncomfortable, or mildly annoyed to have to slow down and wait to find out what the child is trying to express, especially when we are on tight time schedules. We finish sentences for them, ask more questions to find out what they want, or tell them to relax and slow down.
I have seen many young children who struggle to talk. It’s important to note that many children who attempt longer utterances (from one word to grammatical sentences) look like stutterers. Most of these speakers become fluent as they master this huge leap in complexity. But some children continue to struggle, and if they don’t get help, they can develop further problems, including over-awareness and fear of talking, avoidance of specific sounds they perceive as difficult, and secondary behaviors (“If I move my hand it will help me speak.”).
Language researchers are always trying to determine which children will persist in stuttering and what therapies will help. I always counsel any concerned parents to designate a relaxed time to talk individually with the child, so there is an experience of no-stress communication. Talking around the supper table can be a competitive experience or, if structured, a great turn-taking exercise. Stopping and giving a child time to choose an idea and put it into words without interruption (no one finishes the sentence or asks more questions) is important as well. It can shame the child if you call attention to the problem especially in front of others. Telling the child to slow down adds another task on top of their difficulty. Commenting on the way they are speaking, rather than focusing on the ideas they are conveying, can increase frustration.
The Stuttering Foundation offers seven more tips for talking with a child who stutters. and a video with more details.
If applying these suggestions makes little difference, ask a speech pathologist with experience with stutterers to observe or screen the child. Early intervention often makes a difference. For true stuttering, heredity is a big factor so be sure to find out if there are others in the family who have had this problem and let the professional know this.
When I studied theories of stuttering, I was amazed that no one really knew what caused it. Theories ranged from problems overriding the breathing mechanism in order to talk, to linguistic issues (their ideas require more complex formulation, as I’ve mentioned), to motor mechanisms, to neurological/muscular differences, and to psychological factors (perceiving that talking is hard which causes anxiety when speaking). I went to the professor of my stuttering class to ask which one was correct, but he said he couldn’t tell me; that we need to consider them all.
To learn more about stuttering, the Stuttering Foundation as a F.A.Q. resource with stuttering facts and information.
One of the best things to do is to let kids know they are not alone. Here is a video where kids talk about being stutterers:
I have worked with few kids who persist in stuttering. Most, fortunately, have been the linguistic types which resolve as they master grammatical formulations. I have worked to advise parents and have used programs that work on easy, gently produced onsets to words. I have introduced the idea of attending a local support group to a teen. I have also called a teen at home by phone on weekends to keep her talking so that her fluency was better on Mondays at school. (We still have a relationship and watched The King’s Speech together.) But I still don’t really know what made these people stutter.
What I do know is that all children deserve respect and need our love, our listening, and our discipline in order to thrive and grow into healthy, empowered adults and communicators.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at kathypuckett.com.