As young children develop their verbal skills, it’s not uncommon for them to stutter.
We’ve probably all known someone who stuttered at some point in their lives, or maybe we have ourselves. Nearly 3 million people in the United States stutter, and approximately 5 percent of all children experience a period of stuttering for six months or longer.
Stuttering is a communication disorder that disrupts the flow of speech. Oftentimes, children know exactly what they want to say, but have trouble easily producing those words or sentences. While every child is different, and the symptoms can vary dramatically, common signs of stuttering include:
● Repeating sounds, syllables, or words (l-l-l-l-like this)
● Prolonging certain sounds (lllllllike this)
● Sudden stoppages or interruptions in speech (their mouth may open but no words are audible)
● Routinely using interjections when speaking (such as “um” or “like”)
As a parent, it can be frustrating to watch your child struggle to communicate. You may find yourself asking questions like: “Is this a normal part of their speech development?” “Will this just be a short bump in the road and they’ll eventually grow out of it?” “When is an appropriate time to seek treatment?”
For about 75 percent of toddlers and preschoolers that demonstrate stuttering, it will naturally and gradually stop over a short period of time. However, if children continue to stutter by the time they reach school, it may persist into adulthood. For these children, the impact stuttering has on their daily life can be worse than the condition itself. They may feel shy or embarrassed, experience anxiety when publicly speaking, or be afraid that they’ll be teased.
Like most speech and language issues, the earlier you seek treatment for stuttering, the more likely your child is to experience better outcomes. Additionally, overcoming the impact of stuttering takes practice and patience, and as a parent or guardian who spends the most time with your child, you’re in a unique position to help them at home. To get you started, I’ve listed a few proactive tips and strategies below that parents can use to help their child speak more fluently.
How Can you Help Your Child
While many children typically receive speech therapy at a school or clinic, COVID-19 has, unfortunately, left many without access to these vital services, which can have a detrimental effect on a child’s academic and emotional development. A lot of parents are looking for answers during these challenging times. So here are some best practices parents can use to take an active role in helping their child:
1. Seek Professional Help.
If you are worried about your child’s speech, it’s important to contact a speech language pathologist (SLP). They are communication experts and the most qualified professional to help evaluate, diagnose, and treat your child. Many SLPs specialize in stuttering and fluency disorders, so make sure that your therapist meets your child’s needs.
How do you know when it’s the right time to seek treatment? As mentioned before, the best prevention for developmental issues is early intervention. Therefore, the sooner you speak with your doctor or get a consultation from a speech therapist, the better. You should especially get professional help if you witness any of the following signs, which may indicate your child’s stuttering is more severe:
● Their stuttering is worsening overtime or continues after they turn 5 years old
● They make facial movements or expressions when speaking
● They try to avoid situations that require public speaking
Finally, receiving high-quality speech therapy can be difficult for many families. Even if you’re lucky to have insurance, speech therapy is often not deemed “medically necessary” by insurance companies and routinely denied. What’s worse, paying out of pocket can be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, the time spent commuting to your speech therapist and waiting in the lobby is inconvenient for many families, especially for households where both parents work.
If any of these situations apply, I’d encourage you to check out online speech therapy. Teletherapy works the same way as traditional, in-person therapy, with the only real difference being that sessions are delivered online through video chat. Typically, online speech therapy is dramatically less expensive than conventional therapy. Best of all, you can connect with your speech therapist with the click of a button from the comfort of your home and on your schedule.
2. Model Easy Speech
For young kids who don’t yet seem to show awareness of their own stuttering, we want to support them in an indirect way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to the stutter itself. Modeling “easy speech” is a technique where parents can use easy, relaxed speech during everyday communication with their child. You want to stretch and smooth out words and speak with a slow pace. It can take some time to get used to, but oftentimes your child’s speech will start to imitate yours if you stay consistent.
3. Positive Reinforcement.
It may feel like a natural instinct to immediately correct a child or react negatively when they stutter. However, it’s important to try and avoid these reactions. Instead, we should be praising and celebrating them when they speak fluently and without frustration.
4. Remove Conversational and Time Pressure.
Try to reduce pressure when speaking with your child. One strategy is to make more comments or observations rather than posing direct questions. For example, if you’re reading to your child, instead of saying “What is the bear doing on this page?” you can comment “I see the bear eating honey!”
5. Conversational Turn-Taking.
It can be tough for your child to get a word in when everyone else has something to say, especially if they have siblings. Take opportunities to insist upon conversational turn-taking. The dinner place is a great place to try this out. Everyone gets a few minutes to describe their day or comment on what they learned in school. When your child that stutters begins to talk, make sure your attention is focused on them.
6. Give Your Child the Spotlight.
Similar to above, find some time everyday to speak with your child by giving them your full, undivided attention. This isn’t just quality parent-child bonding time, but these supportive moments can put your child at ease and help them build confidence and self-esteem. During these talks, let them guide the discussion. Does he/she want to talk about school? Or Fortnite? Or sports? Or movies? Go with it. And of course, if they don’t want to speak at all it’s important to respect their wishes and not force them.
7. Let Your Child Finish.
If your child is struggling to pronounce a word or sentence, try not to finish it for them. Instead, give your child enough time to finish their thoughts without filling in the blanks. Additionally, try to resist the urge to say phrases like “take a breath” or “take it slow” with the best intentions, as these phrases can make children more self-conscious.
8. At-Home Exercises.
There are a number of activities parents can do with their child at home to help improve their stuttering.
a. One exercise is to model prolonged syllables for each word in a sentence, taking a short pause between each. Let’s say you and your child are reading a book; point to a picture and instead of saying, “the tiger is running quickly,” try to say, “the (pause) ti-(pause) ger(pause) is(pause) run(pause) ing(pause) quick(pause) ly(pause).
b. Play a game with your child and allow them to initiate the conversation. When the adult becomes the verbal “follower,” the child has room to grow their confidence in speaking.”
c. Finally, tension in the muscles can be both a symptom and a contributor to stuttering. To help with this, encourage your child to breathe from their belly instead of their chest. This can help them calm down and relax their body.
9. Educate Yourself on Stuttering.
The more you know about stuttering, the more informed decisions you’ll be able to make regarding your child’s treatment. While speaking with a speech-language pathologist is a great place to start, make sure to do your own research and seek guidance. The Stuttering Foundation is a great place to start. I’ve also created an instructional YouTube series with several videos about stuttering, as well as an informational guide to help answer many common questions about stuttering.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. You can check out her blog here.