Navigating Your Child’s Stutter
Know when to seek help and what treatment options are available
Sometimes, around age 3 when children are learning to speak and are developing their language skills, they begin to stutter. This can be part of a child’s typical development, and he will usually outgrow it within six months. But what happens if he doesn’t? Here are some factors to consider when determining if your child’s stuttering should be evaluated.
According to The Stuttering Foundation, stuttering is a communication disorder that affects the flow of speech that causes repetitions, prolongations and abnormal stoppages. It impacts more than 3 million Americans. Kelly Goad, a speech language pathologist and clinical director of speech language therapy at Emerge Pediatric Therapy in Durham, says there is not one specific cause of stuttering in children.
“What we do know is that there are likely a number of factors in play,” she says. “Stuttering tends to run in families, so there is some genetic basis. There is a higher incidence of stuttering in children who also have another speech language delay, and children who stutter may process language slightly differently than children who do not stutter. Motor skills can play a role, as can temperament.”
While many people believe stuttering is caused by anxiety or shyness, Goad says that is a myth. “Anxiety does not cause stuttering, although children can have anxiety as a result of their stuttering, and a negative reaction to the stuttering can, in turn, exacerbate it,” she says.
You can determine your child’s risk for developing a stutter by considering these risk factors, according to The Stuttering Foundation.
- Family history: Does your child have a parent, sibling or other family member who still stutters?
- Age at onset: Stuttering becomes a concern if it is still occurring after age 3½.
- The amount of time that has passed since onset: Has your child been stuttering for 6-12 months or longer?
- Gender: Males are typically more at risk.
- Other speech production concerns: Does your child make speech errors or have trouble being understood?
- Language skills: Advanced language skills appear to be even more of a risk factor for children whose stuttering persists. Also, pay attention to whether your child’s speech is delayed or disordered.
If your child has been stuttering for more than six months and has more than one-risk factor, you should consult with a specialist for further evaluation. Goad says the following treatments can help children deal with their stuttering.
Take a family-focused approach. Goad says this is a good way to enhance the child’s fluency.
- Speak at a slower rate.
- Ask fewer questions.
- Adjust the family’s schedule to accommodate the child.
- Model slow, easy speech. Goad says this is usually much more effective than giving a child directions like “slow down” or “take a deep breath.”
Try speech therapy. New research shows that speech therapy can be helpful in developing fluency strategies and reinforcement of speech, Goad says. This kind of therapy includes teaching techniques that help modify the way a child speaks by:
- Decreasing the child’s speaking rate.
- Increasing pausing while speaking.
- Adjusting the tension.
- Learning how to stutter more easily.
The Stuttering Foundation indicates that parents should seek speech therapy sooner, rather than later. While speech therapy may not prevent a child from stuttering altogether, it can provide tools that improve a child’s speech fluency, and equip the child with speaking strategies that will make it easier for him to communicate.
If you have concerns about your child’s speech, Goad recommends contacting a speech language clinic. Most offer a free phone consultation and can determine if an evaluation should be recommended. Visit stutteringhelp.org/referrals-information for a list of therapists who specialize in stuttering.
Michele Jonczak is a freelance writer and mom of three in Raleigh.