Tips Parents Need To Know
By Lori Melnitsky, MA, CCC-SLP
Isn’t it wonderful that some of our best learning stems from our own personal experiences? Many years ago my 2 1/2 year old daughter came home from a sleepover at her grandparent’s house. She was repeating whole words and phrases. Additionally, she was prolonging sounds (ssssssand) and seemingly unaware of how she sounded. As a speech/language pathologist and a person who stutters, I knew that many children experience stuttering or disfluencies at an early age. Still, as any parent would be, I was concerned and worried. There were many questions that had to be answered. I have to admit my gut reaction was to say all the wrong things to her that I had heard early in my childhood, such as slow down, breathe, say it over, and don’t be nervous. However, I knew these suggestions, though all well intended, were more harmful than helpful.
What is stuttering? What causes it? Although, the exact cause is unknown, there are known environmental factors that contribute to stuttering. Ideally, it is the goal of working with young children who stutter to eliminate disfluencies while involving parents in the process. Stuttering is an interruption of the continuous flow of speech. It can be characterized as prolongations (sssssssssssssnake), repetitions of words (I I I want milk) or phrases (I want I want milk), frequent use of filler words (uh, um), blocking (silence and struggle before saying a word).
Between the ages of 2 and 5, many children experience stuttering. This is often considered a period of normal disfluencies. Why? One reason is that children are still coordinating their speech patterns and acquiring language during this stage. Will these children outgrow it? The majority will, but there is no way of knowing for sure. This is why consulting a speech/language pathologist at the onset is vital.
Did you know that approximately 1 % of the population stutters? Additionally, 4 out of 5 people who stutter are male. Many times there is a family member who stutters. In my case my father stuttered. One known fact is that parents are NOT at fault. Also, stuttering is not a contagious disease. No one will start to stutter if they hear another person stuttering.
What are some of the characteristics of normal developmental disfluencies?
The child does not exhibit struggle behaviors (such as kicking his foot) or display awareness of how they sound. Disfluent moments can disappear and then unexpectedly reappear days or months later. The child is not avoiding speaking situations or displaying frustration. Easy repetitions of words and short phrases.
When does stuttering become more of a concern?
Children who are at risk usually exhibit struggle behaviors while forcing words out (such as unusual breathing patterns, or facial grimacing). They often avoid feared words or speaking situations. Fear and frustration is often visible. Saying “I don’t know” often in response to obvious questions or changing words. These are forms of avoidance. Using filler words often (like, um, uh). Prolongations of sounds (ssssssssnake). Stuttering might become longer in duration. Change in intonation patterns (rising pitch during the period of stuttering). Blocking on words, such as opening mouth with no audible sound coming out. Disruptions in breathing patterns. Stuttering becomes more frequent.
What do you do if you suspect your child is stuttering?
Seek out the help of a speech/language pathologist experienced with stuttering. Often, doctors and family members will say “Wait, the child will grow out of it”. This is often incorrect and increases tension in the family. Always consult with a SLP for advice. They may monitor the child or provide parents with information to help their child. They might use a direct therapeutic approach with the child or with both the child and parents. Be a good listener – pay close attention to what is being said NOT how it is being said. Look directly into the child’s eyes to show that you are truly listening to the message. Reduce questioning. This will decrease demands placed on the child. Avoid putting the child in the spotlight-ex: “Tell Aunt Sue what you did in school today”. This puts too much pressure on the child. Avoid comments like talk slower. Try and model a slow relaxed speech pattern. (This is difficult. SLP’s will demonstrate this for you). Delay responding to allow for more pauses and reduce time pressure for the child. Don’t ask the child to repeat the sentence. It will only increase awareness and frustration. Most importantly, don’t panic!!! Although we can’t identify who will eventually stop stuttering, we can give advice to parents on how to talk to a child who stutters and model the appropriate way to respond. Remember it is not your fault. Parents are NOT to blame.
All of these strategies will be easier to follow once you have met with a speech/language pathologist.
In conclusion, what happened to that 2 1/2 year old I mentioned earlier? She stuttered for approximately 1 1/2 years. It was episodic. She blocked at times and jerked her head to get words out. She prolonged sounds. My husband and I began to reduce demands placed upon her and slow down our own speech. We never acknowledged her disfluent moments. It wasn’t necessary to. Interestingly, she never commented on mine. My daughter is now 12 years old and has shown no signs of stuttering past the age of 4. Was it developmental in nature or was it the beginning signs of stuttering? We’ll never know, but altering the environment definitely made speaking easier and less stressful for her.
Remember, there are many successful professionals who stutter and have learned to be effective communicators. There are also more direct therapy approaches available if stuttering persists.
Remember parents your words, are like candy to a child. They eat them up. Be kind, patient and loving. Most importantly, consult a speech/language pathologist if you suspect your child is stuttering.
For more information, please contact Lori Melnitsky. Lori is a speech language pathologist (SLP) who stuttered severely as a child. She is available for parent workshops at schools, consultations, and presentations at local universities. She is the chapter leader of the National Stuttering Association on LI and founder of the LI Stuttering Connection. She is in private practice and treats children and adults who stutter as well as other speech and language disorders. Lori is a candidate to receive the distinguished title of Board Recognized Fluency Specialist in Stuttering. Lori can be contacted at 516-776-0184 or via e-mail: Lori@allislandspeech.com (www.allislandspeech.com)