I recently saw this question asked by a parent on a social media platform and it gained a lot of differing responses from parents, adults who stutter and Speech & Language Therapists. As a parent of a child who stutters it can be difficult to know who to listen to. You just want what is best for your child.
In the 1930s, a Speech & Language Therapist called Wendell Johnson (who stuttered himself) presented his theory that making a child aware of their dysfluent speech created stress that resulted in stuttering. As a consequence, direct therapy was avoided for several decades with many adopting a ‘hands off the child’ approach. As an adult who stutters, this belief is almost feasible. When we are talking, we might anticipate a stutter on a particular word and consequently end up stuttering on it. In these instances, being aware of, and focusing on our stutter can increase speech anxiety, physical tension and stuttering behaviours.
However, a young child hasn’t experienced the years of reactions to stuttering which can contribute to the belief that stuttering is bad and fluency is good. For them, word repetitions and stretched sounds are just something that happens when they speak. Some might not even be aware this is happening at all.
Perspectives on the causes of stuttering, and whether we should talk about stuttering with young children, have changed in the decades since, with ‘key players’ within the stuttering world now recommending early intervention, demonstrating we’ve said farewell to the ‘hands-off the child’ approach.
How aware is your child that they stutter?
Awareness of stuttering can begin at a very young age (i.e., 2 years old) with more children who stutter becoming aware of their speech differences as they reach school age. Their age, how old they were when they started stuttering, and how long since they started to stutter, all play a role in the likelihood a child will be aware that they speak differently to their peers. Awareness of stuttering can present in many ways. Some children may comment on their stuttering “I can’t say it!” or ask for help when they get stuck expressing themselves. Some might become frustrated or get upset when it happens. Others might stop speaking and/or leave a situation completely.
If they aren’t aware, we don’t necessarily need to draw attention to it. Instead, we can focus on what they are saying and be aware of our own communication style and behaviour whilst they are speaking.
Responding to their emerging awareness
If your child is becoming frustrated this shows that they are aware something is happening whilst they are speaking. As a parent, this is a good opportunity to talk about what is happening with them.
As with any emotion, listen to what they are saying and acknowledge their feelings. At the same time, show them you are feeling calm and comfortable through your own facial expression and tone of voice. We know parents do not cause stuttering but how we respond to it has an impact on how children view their own speech. If a child is feeling frustrated about stuttering and observes worry, concern, or discomfort from their parents, this can feed into the belief that stuttering is something bad.
We can also take this opportunity to model neutral language for stuttering to our child. For example, if your child says, “my talking was really bad”, model something more neutral, such as “Do you mean you stuttered a bit more?” Neutral language works to avoid associating stuttering with bad and fluency with good and demonstrates we feel comfortable talking about stuttering with them.
Our responses to stuttering can shape how a child views their speech, but of course, we aren’t the only people involved in their lives. Speak with relatives, family friends and nursery or school staff about stuttering. Share with them how you react to and discuss stuttering with your child. This will ensure a consistent approach is adopted in each setting.
Reflect upon your own acceptance of stuttering
It is common for parents to experience their own anxiety relating to their child’s stuttering, or uncertainty about what to do. By recognising and managing our feelings around our child’s speech, and desensitising ourselves to their stutter, we can start our own journey towards acceptance. This can be tricky but beneficial for both you and your child.
Conspiracy of silence
I first learned of the ‘Conspiracy of silence’ in my early to mid-twenties, and instantly this resonated with me. As a child who stuttered I was hyper-aware of it; however, it was rarely discussed by anyone around me. When it was, it was often in a negative manner (e.g., imitation by a peer). Consequently, I developed high levels of shame and embarrassment relating to my speech, spending years trying to hide my stutter by any means possible. It wasn’t until my teenage years this silence was broken. Speaking about stuttering with Speech and Language Therapists and others who stuttered helped remove some of the shame and embarrassment associated with it. This allowed me to speak about stuttering more openly with key people in my life.
Looking back upon my childhood experiences, I truly believe that the years of shame and embarrassment could have been avoided by having open conversations about stuttering with people around me when I was much younger.
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Thomas Cope trained as a Speech & Language Therapist in the UK in 2011. Since then he has worked with children and young people who stutter and their families, within the National Health Service and in private settings. He has received additional training in various therapeutic approaches used for children and young people who stutter. Although his primary interest is stuttering, he continues to work with other client groups as an independent Speech & Language Therapist.