Stuttering (also called stammering or dysfluency) in children is a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables or words, and involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the stutterer/stammerer is unable to produce sounds. stuttering is generally a developmental disorder which often presents between 2 to 3 years of age. Most children experience some dysfluency and around 65% of preschoolers who stutter, spontaneously recover. If a child is still stuttering beyond the age of 6, they may not recover without speech therapy intervention.
Causes of stuttering
There appears to be no known cause for many children that begin to stutter, but there is evidence to show that dysfluency can occur for a number of reasons. It is thought that some children may have a genetic predisposition to the disorder. Children with this predisposition may never become stutterers, but an event, or their communication environment may trigger a stutter to start. Parent’s reaction to that stutter may or may not then exacerbate the problem.
Another theory on why dysfluency occurs is the “Demands and Capacities” theory where the capacity of the child to communicate appropriately in a given situation is unable to match the demands made on the child by himself, the environment and his ability to use speech and language. This may be seen in a young child that has a good language and vocabulary knowledge, but their ability to express this knowledge is not as developed.
Psychological impact of stuttering
Stuttering can produce anxiety, tension, stress, and embarrassment during speech. The emotional state of the stutterer often has a big impact on their ability to produce fluent speech. These emotions will cause anxiety which in itself makes the stutter/stammer worse. The stutterer may also develop secondary behaviours such as physical movements (also known as concomitant movements) or avoidance strategies. These physical movements may manifest as loss of eye contact, eye-blinking, head jerks, hand tapping, interjected “starter” sounds and words, such as “um,” “ah,” “you know”. The stutterer may develop secondary behaviors such as avoiding specific words, people or situations that they find difficult. Some stutterers become so successful at using avoidance strategies that they present with few primary stuttering behaviours, however, they are constantly working hard to avoid certain words and/or situations.
Treatment for stuttering
Many children stutter for a period as their early speech and language is developing so parents should not be initially over anxious if they hear their young child stutter. There are many things as parents and carers that we can do to make things easier for our children and lessen the risk of the stutter becoming more serious (see below). Parents can change their own communication and the general communication environment to make it easier for the child. If the dysfluency does not spontaneously recover in early childhood and is left untreated it is likely to continue into adulthood. Many adult stammer’s claim that the disorder has affected their lives making them avoid many social situations and reducing their confidence.If you are concerned that your child may be developing a stutter and you require treatment, visit your local speech and language therapist / pathologist for an assessment and advice.
Guidelines for Parents of Children who Stutter
- Don’t feel you have to tell your child to stop, breath, slow down, or try and repeat what they are saying
- Make sure you give your child plenty of time to communicate, and don’t rush them
- Make sure you look at your child when talking and speak slowly (not unnaturally) and clearly
- Find quiet times, and times when you are not in a hurry to have conversations with your child
- Don’t ask too many questions or expect too much conversation from your child when they are tired
- Don’t be tempted to complete your child’s sentences if they are struggling
- Remember to use age appropriate language with your child, and not put pressure on them to talk using language beyond their capabilities
- If your household is “busy” or there is a lot of competition for speaking time, try and look at your home environment – look for ways to reduce any stress and tell others to give the child lots of time to talk
- If your household has a hectic routine in the mornings and evenings, try and re-organise and plan things to reduce the child’s stress levels
- If there are situations in the child’s life that are causing the child to worry or upsetting the child, try and resolve these situations
- Make a time everyday where you can spend time with your child without any interruptions. Let this be your special time and let your child choose the activity and take the lead – do not feel you have to ask questions or fill in the silences
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