How to Help (and Not Help) With a Stutter
Don't finish words for a child who stutters or tell him to slow down. Here's what to do instead.
Everyone has moments when he trips over the words or repeat things; it gives the mind time to think and reorganize what it wants to say. “Someone who stutters knows exactly what he wants to say, but it gets stuck,” says Joe Donaher, PhD, program coordinator at the Center for Childhood Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Young children may stutter because they’re trying to get their ideas out so quickly, Jennifer Cristiano, owner of the South Jersey Speech Center in Williamstown, NJ. “They’re in a race to tell you everything they’re thinking.”
By the start of elementary school, most kids will have outgrown their stuttering.
In fact, about 5 percent of preschoolers stutter, but only 1 percent continue to do so into adulthood, including Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles and former Vice President Joe Biden. “We don’t know why the other 4 percent recover,” says Hallie Mintz, MS, speech language pathologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE.
Sometimes it is tricky for a parent to tell when a child has a stutter, says Mike Bauer, former National Stuttering Association chapter leader. “These kids are very intelligent about knowing when and where to switch words.”
Pay attention if your child:
- Covers his mouth
- Avoids talking
- Gives up; says “never mind”
- Says nonsensical words
- Notices it himself
Sometimes a child’s frustration with a stutter will show as a physical reaction, such as a grimace, says Cristiano.
Also, keep in mind that stuttering can take three forms
- Repetition: A whole word or phrase or sound is repeated several times
- Prolongation: One sound is held out for a long time
- Block: The person struggles to speak but no sound comes out
What not to do
If you child has a stutter, resist the temptation to finish a word or sentence for her. “Filling in the word may actually make stuttering worse,” as this tends to increase kids’ frustration, says Mintz. “These kids just need an extra minute. Just let them finish.”
Likewise, don’t tell her to calm down or speak more slowly. “Telling a child to slow down is not helpful,” she says. If it’s a true stutter, slowing down won’t make a difference.”
It’s also incorrect to assume that stuttering is caused by nerves. “It’s not always triggered by an emotional reaction,” says Cristiano. Kids may stutter just as much at home with their parents as they would in unfamiliar or stressful situations.
What you should do
Stuttering can make the listener feel anxious and uncertain, says Bauer, who suggests these techniques when in a conversation with someone who stutters:
- Maintain eye contact
- Wait patiently
- Listen carefully
- Wait for the speaker to finish
In therapy, fluency is not the ultimate goal, says Mintz. The perfect production of speech is not as important as participating in the conversation, she explains. “Sometimes the body is going to stutter no matter what,” says Mintz “but we don’t want it to impact a willingness to speak." There are some strategies therapists teach to reduce stuttering:
- Stretchy speech: Hold out the vowel of the first word in the sentence then say the rest of the sentence normally
- Light contact: Touch lip or tongue really lightly to reduce tension
- Manipulate the tension: Tighten and relax muscles intentionally
- Stutter on purpose: Learn to control the stutter by doing it on purpose
When looking for a therapist, Donaher suggests finding one who specializes in stuttering because many speech language pathologists don’t study it in graduate school.
How parents can help
Because stuttering can be a hidden disability until the first time a new acquaintance hears it, Amy Sniras, of Glen Mills, PA, reaches out to teachers at the beginning of each school year to let them know her son, 13-year-old Jake, stutters. “This way, when he starts stuttering, there’s no reaction,” she explains.
To make things easier in conversing with new people, Donaher suggests that kids compose an “elevator speech” to explain why they talk they way they do. “I stutter. Sometimes my words get stuck,” he suggests as a short and simple explanation.
Sniras recommends reaching out to others who stutter. In addition to support for parents, it’s especially important for kids to meet other kids who stutter, she says. “There’s an amazing network and community out there.”
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a a contributor to MetroKids.