Experts say parents are instrumental in the recovery of their stuttering children. There are easy and practical things parents can do at home to help.
Your child is most likely to stutter when she is developing language skills and growing her vocabulary. So, how then, do you know if you’re dealing with a routine stumbling over words, which will pass, or genuine, lasting stuttering?
no need to worry
A preschooler, aged three to six years, who’s occasionally repeating words and sounds is most certainly not a cause for concern.
“It can simply mean they’re stalling for time as they search for the right words,” says Arina Coetzee, a Cape Town-based audio and speech therapist. This is a regular part of language development and is generally outgrown by the age of seven.
Stressful changes, such as the arrival of a new sibling, a change in school or a parent returning to work, could temporarily affect speech.
when to seek help
If your child’s stuttering has been severe and constant for at least a month, it might be time to visit a speech therapist.
In addition to your child repeating, blocking and omitting words and sounds, signs to look out for include:
- tension in the child’s shoulders, jaw or cheeks.
- looking away or clenching fists
- blinking repeatedly
- stamping their feet with frustration when trying to get out words.
These signs of stress can be additional indicators that your child’s stuttering is something that needs addressing. If you are unsure or concerned, chat to your child’s paediatrician or teacher.
facts and findings
Stuttering has been linked with higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. A fact confirmed by a nine-year study conducted by Dr Gerald Maguire, iStutter’s Global Medical Director and Chair of Psychiatry at Doc1 Health.
Whether due to dopamine or other factors, 10% of South African preschoolers will stutter. Of these, 60% will be boys, 40% girls and 1% will be chronic. Chronic meaning that the pathology persists into the teenage years or even adulthood. However, early intervention (before stuttering becomes established) is effective in helping many children achieve normal fluency.
Research shows that the prognosis for recovery from chronic stuttering is good with 65% of preschoolers recovering in the first two years of stuttering and about 74% recovering by their early teens. Girls, in particular, seem to recover well.
case in point
Shortly after *Colin started stuttering, his parents started taking him to a weekly one-hour speech therapy session. “At these sessions, which lasted six months, the therapist did not interact with Colin. She observed the interaction between Colin and me. At the end of each session she gave us an evaluation. We were given tasks to do with him at home. I also came up with my own tasks to help him,” says Colin’s mom. Within a year he had fully recovered from his stuttering.
This indirect approach to therapy is commonly used in assisting stutterers. It teaches parents about normal language and fluency development, stuttering, and conditions that may worsen a child’s speech disfluencies. The parent is also taught how to make communication changes at home.
The direct approach, on the other hand, teaches the child to produce more fluent speech, either through modelling easier speaking styles, or through feedback from the parent or speech therapist about the child’s fluency. Most therapists use a combination of the two techniques.
“Family knowledge, involvement and input are critical factors for successful therapy,” says Dina Lillian, a Johannesburg-based speech therapist. She views treatment as a 50:50 partnership between therapist and parent. ” Colin’s recovery is a case of a job well done by both parent and therapist,” she comments. The strength in Colin’s treatment lay in the ability of the therapist to equip and empower his parents to help him improve.
Find out more about speech impediments.
an overwhelming world
But it’s not just the obvious speech-related issues that need addressing. “Children who stutter become embarrassed, frustrated and angry at themselves and others,” says Johannesburg-based child psychologist Cristine Scolari. This often comes with despondency, sadness, a sense of unfairness and an overwhelming feeling that something is wrong with them and won’t get better.
Stuttering worsens when others tease stutterers about their speech impediment. As a result, says Scolari, children will often withdraw and become self-conscious so that social interactions – such as meeting new people, asking or answering questions or talking on the telephone – exacerbate their stuttering.
Building self-confidence is thus an essential tool in the stuttering child’s recovery, which is why play therapy or psychotherapy can be beneficial. During psychotherapy, children are taught ways to express their feelings other than through verbalising. This also helps with peripheral issues such as developing social skills, learning how to deal with teasing, and working through their anger and frustration.
Read more about speech development problems here.
recovery begins at home
The experts put you, the parent, in charge of your child’s recovery. There are a number of easy-to-implement things you can do to help your child improve.
- Don’t make a big issue out of the stuttering, unless your child broaches the subject. If she does bring it up, speak in a casual and matter-of-fact way to avoid making her feel self-conscious.
- If your child brings up his stuttering in conversation, avoid using big words. These include “stuttering”, “stammering” or “speech therapist”, which may frighten him and make him feel there’s something wrong with him. Instead, use words that are part of his vocabulary such as “stuck words”.
- Don’t instruct, lead by example. Children tend to mimic their parents, so speak slowly, use short sentences and pause before answering their questions. Keep your voice soft and relaxed.
- When your child speaks to you, make sure you look at them and give them your full attention. If you are impatient, your preschooler will feel pressure to “get it out”, making her stuttering worse.
- Do not interrupt your child when they are speaking. A child is more relaxed and less likely to stutter if they know they won’t be interrupted.
- Don’t pressure with questions. Let your child speak about what they want to talk about.
- Praise your child each time something is done well. This will increase their confidence.
- Allow your child to express their frustration or embarrassment. Acknowledge their feelings by saying “I understand how frustrating that must be for you”.
- Provide an atmosphere of acceptance of all types of speech, this includes stuttered speech so your child will learn that she is okay.
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.