How do I feel about my child and their stutter?
Stuttering is much more common in younger children when compared with the adult population. It’s said that around 5% of young children (i.e. aged 2 to 5) will experience some stuttering as their speech and language skills develop, with around 70-80% of these children not continuing to stutter into their school-aged years.
With younger children who stutter, a contrast is often made between persistent stuttering and transient stuttering, with the latter representing the 70-80% who do not continue to stutter into their school-aged years. The term ‘Persistent Stuttering’ is typically given to those who continue to stutter into adolescence and their adult years. We used to say that around 1% of the adult population identify as having a stutter; however, recent polls suggest that this is probably around 2%.
The reason I am explaining this is because during my time as a Speech & Language Therapist I have had so many conversations with parents or other family members who express concerns that a child in their family has started stuttering. In this situation, I typically explain the difference between transient and persistent stuttering and give general advice around adult-child interactions (e.g. maintaining eye contact, reducing number of questions, adult slowing down their own rate of speech, one-on-one talking times).
One thing that the majority of these family members have in common is the anxiety they experience about the child stuttering, and perhaps also that feeling of relief when I explain transient stuttering to them. As an adult who stutters, I am in two minds about how I feel about this. I know that growing up with a stutter, and being an adult with a stutter, can be challenging. It can be frustrating and other people aren’t always understanding. However, I feel I have achieved in my life, not despite my stammer, but because of it.
Before discussing responses to stuttering it’s useful to consider the lens we are looking at it through. Stuttering is commonly understood in terms of the medical model. The medical model views stuttering as an impairment, and consequently a person who stutters as being impaired. Fluent speech is viewed as being typical, or normal, and stuttered speech is viewed as atypical, or a difficulty. Because stuttering is viewed as an impairment it’s the role of professionals to intervene to reduce the impact it has upon a person’s ability to participate in life.
The media also plays an important role in how we feel towards stuttering. Within comedy writing, stuttering is often used for comic relief purposes. Others use stuttering as a way of showing a character’s weaknesses or nervousness when compared to those who don’t stutter. Even supposedly positive news stories about stuttering typically contain the narrative of stuttering being a barrier and then the person overcoming their stutter. We know that seeing and hearing these messages through the media influences how we view things in daily life.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why as a parent you would experience anxiety or concern about your child stuttering. You might worry about how it’ll affect their future, or if they’ll be teased because of it, or how it might impact how they view themselves. Many parents feel as if they don’t know what to do, and unfortunately, some even experience self-blame, believing they have done something which has caused their child to stutter.
What steps can you take as a parent?
Information: Often anxiety is caused by the unknown. To combat these feelings of uncertainty, we can take some time to learn about stuttering. The internet is a great source of information, but as with anything on the internet be aware of the perspective the author is writing from. The majority of literature online will be written from the medical model perspective, which is perfectly fine, as long as we understand that this is the approach they are taking. There are so many groups out there, BeneTalk included, producing accessible and family-friendly information about stuttering, which we can use to better understand stuttering from a more holistic perspective, without viewing dysfluency as something inherently negative or problematic.
If you do end up seeing a Speech & Language Therapist about your child’s speech, take this opportunity to access the knowledge they have about stuttering. It might help to write a list of questions you wish to ask before the appointment.
Support: Accessing support from others is another important step we can take. This support might be more informal, such as speaking with your partner, family members or friends about your child’s speech and your related feelings. You might wish to explore more formal options of support for parents, such as peer support groups, run by parents of children who stutter. They might be at a different stage of the journey and be able to offer a different perspective and first-hand advice. There are also lots of organisations out there who offer training courses, workshops, free telephone helplines and webchats.
Desensitisation: Desensitisation is usually something we think about with people who stutter; however, it’s something that can be helpful for parents of children who stutter as well. It’s the process of becoming gradually used to something that makes us feel uncomfortable.
I spoke in a previous post about the ‘Conspiracy of Silence’. For parents, this might be being afraid to talk about stuttering with their child out of fear that it’ll make it more of a difficulty. We know this isn’t the case. Actually, by having these conversations with a child about their speech, it helps to desensitise them to it, and helps us to feel more comfortable as well.
When a child is stuttering, they might be feeling “I’m going to stutter”, and as parents, you might be feeling this too. Part of you might want to jump in, talk on their behalf or offer some form of physical affection. As part of desensitisation, we can consider how we are feeling and what we are thinking during these moments. It might be that instead of feeling as if we need to jump in and support our child, we can trust that they’re able to communicate what they want to say. This gives them the opportunity to manage the situation and also shows us that they can do it, and we don’t need to be so worried on their behalf.
Acceptance: We can also learn to accept that a child’s stutter is something that is outside of our control as a way of moving forward. We can acknowledge our thoughts and feelings relating to our child’s speech and allow them to happen, without acting upon them. For example, we might be thinking ‘They’re going to get stuck and I don’t want them to be upset.’ It might be useful to evaluate this thought by being open and curious to it – ‘What is making me think about this?’ We can also just take a step back and watch our thinking, like they are cars driving past our house, reducing the likelihood of becoming trapped in a cycle of worry.
Ali Berquez (Clinical Lead for children at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering in London, UK) describes a really useful activity to use with parents of children who stutter, in her podcast with Sara Mcintyre, which I think would be great to finish with. For this activity, you draw a pie chart with each slice representing a different part of a child. They might have a great sense of humour, and be a really good brother or sister, as well as having a stutter. This helps us to accept that stuttering is just one part of who they are. What would your child’s pie-chart look like?
Berquez, A., & Kelman, E. (2018). Methods in stuttering therapy for desensitizing parents of children who stutter. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 27(3S), 1124-1138. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_AJSLP-ODC11-17-0183
Cope, T. (2022, August 23). Should I talk about stuttering with my child? BeneTalk. https://www.benetalk.com/post/should-i-talk-about-stuttering-with-my-child
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Harris, R. (2009). Act Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kelman, E. & Nicholas, A. (2020). Palin Parent-Child Interaction Therapy for Early Childhood Stammering (2nd Edition). Routledge.
Langevin, M., Packman, A., & Onslow, M. (2010). Parent perceptions of the impact of stuttering on their preschoolers and themselves. Journal of communication disorders, 43(5), 407-423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.05.003
Macintyre, S. (2021, May 12). Desensitization with Parents of Children who stutter [Audio Podcast]. Stuttering Foundation Podcast. https://www.listennotes.com/bn/podcasts/stuttering/desensitization-with-parents-dx-BIahPRNQ/
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Singer, C. M., Otieno, S., Chang, S. E., & Jones, R. M. (2022). Predicting Persistent Developmental Stuttering Using a Cumulative Risk Approach. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 65(1), 70-95. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_JSLHR-21-00162
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