Although researchers are gradually learning more about stuttering and its cause/s, there is still a lot that remains a mystery. With “the unknown” comes room for parents to try and fill in the gaps with their own guesses as to what caused their child to begin stuttering. One of the questions I most often hear from parents is “Is it something I did?” The answer is a resounding “No!”
What We Know
According to the Stuttering Foundation, there are four factors that most likely play a role in the development of stuttering. It is hypothesized that a combination of these factors may result in a child with a predisposition for stuttering.
1. Genetics: Approximately 60 percent of people who stutter have a close family member that stutters as well. In addition, recent research by Dr. Dennis Drayna has identified three genes as a source of stuttering in families studied.
2. Neurophysiology: Brain imaging studies have indicated that people who stutter may process language in different areas of the brain than people who do not stutter.
3. Child development: Children with developmental delays or other speech/language disorders are more likely to stutter. (Note: By no means, is this implying that all people who stutter have delays in other areas. There is simply an increased likelihood of stuttering in children with developmental delays and language disorders.)
4. Family dynamics: High expectations and fast-paced lifestyles may play a role in stuttering.
Family Dynamics?? I Thought I Wasn’t the Cause??
You’re not! There are plenty of “fast-paced” families out there that do not have children who stutter. However, there are certain environments that may exacerbate disfluencies in a child who already has the increased propensity to stutter. This does not mean that you have to lower your expectations for your child or take them out of their extra-curricular activities. However, there are some changes that may help. Although I advise parents not to tell a child to “slow down” or “relax,” I do suggest slowing your own rate of speech and inserting more pauses. This decreases time pressure and models a more relaxed way of speaking. Indicate you are listening to your child with eye contact and by trying to set aside some time during the day that they have your undivided attention. Try your best to reduce interruptions. This can be easier said than done so don’t beat yourself up over this one, especially when there are siblings involved! On days that your child is having particular difficulty, reducing questions and language demands (i.e. “Tell grandma what we did yesterday.”) is a good idea. Let them initiate when they want to talk. Keep your expectations high, but give them a break on rough days!
If I’m Not To Blame, Then Why Does My Child Stutter More at Home And Around Me?
Although this is certainly not true of all children, many of my clients have stated that their child stutters more at home. Contrary to what most parents would believe, this is usually a positive thing and not a sign that they are doing something wrong. What these parents are witnessing is “open stuttering.” Open stuttering occurs when a child (or adult) speaks freely and without hiding, avoiding or “going around” words that they worry they may stutter on. Instead of feeling accountable for this increase in disfluencies, parents should be praised for creating a supportive environment that has allowed their child to be themselves and has encouraged their child to express themselves whether or not they stutter. At school or around peers your child may not stutter as frequently, however this may be a result of avoidance behaviors such as switching words or opting to speak less. These avoidance behaviors can be exhausting and frustrating. Home should be a place for your child to take a break from “avoiding” and say exactly what they want to say, when they want to say it (even if it means taking a little longer to come out!).
But What About The Techniques My Child Is Learning In Speech?
The strategies your child is learning with their speech-language pathologist are extremely valuable in giving them a way to regain some control over their speech, especially when entering a difficult speaking situation (i.e. reading aloud, oral presentation, introducing themselves, etc.) However, when it comes down to it, it is up to them when they choose to use their speech tools. They should be praised when they practice or use their techniques but also praised for open stuttering. It may not be easy, but resist the urge to feel (or express) disappointment when your child stutters. Instead, be proud that when they begin to stutter they are choosing to continue to speak and be heard.
Brooke Leiman, MA, CCC-SLP, is the Fluency Clinic Supervisor at National Speech Language Therapy Center in Bethesda, MD. Brooke hosts a blog dedicated to informing people on stuttering and stuttering therapy at www.stutteringsource.com. She can be contacted at Brooke@nationalspeech.com.