Find out all you need to know about stuttering in children, the signs and underlying causes, and more importantly find out what you can do about stuttering, and where to turn to for help. All this and more in my child stutters, what can I do?
His voice soared from his young frame on the TV screen, each note perfect, every sound enunciated like he was born to sing. One by one, the judges swung around. Part Josh Groban, part Harry Styles, this kid had that special something. He was Harrison Craig, who went on to win The Voice, Australia.
At first glance, he looked like the typical uber-talented contestant; handsome, with perfect teeth and an extraordinary gift.
But after his performance was over and he needed to talk, something happened that surprised the audience. Harrison stuttered. He managed with aplomb, calling on the speech therapy strategies he had learned.
The show moved into a spiel explaining more. A story about a talented kid with a speech issue; how Harrison had been bullied at school yet had turned his impediment into a strength.
Harrison is one of the 5-10% of children and young people with a stutter. This percentage drops in adulthood as stuttering is often addressed with speech language therapy, and in some cases, resolves itself over time.
The most positive outcomes for children with stutter occur with early intervention. Persistent stuttering in children requires more intensive therapy.
What is stuttering?
A stutter can present as a repeated first syllable, a repeated word, an emphasised, elongated sound or a pause in speech where the speaker seems ‘stuck’ on a word.
Some stutterers manifest all four.
Interestingly, people who speak with a stammer can usually speak in unison without an issue, or sing. Ian Grant, a New Zealand parenting expert, stutters in every day speech, yet is word perfect when speaking on stage or on the television. It’s a phenomenon yet to be fully understood by researchers, but he is not alone.
People with stutters that you may not realise have this fluency issue include stars like Nicole Kidman, Shaquille O’Neal, Emily Blunt and our own Sam Neill. Stuttering can be a very frustrating speech difficulty, but there are excellent speech language therapists
Why do people stutter?
It is still a subject for medical research, but we do know that possible causes include: genes (stuttering often runs in families), abnormalities in speech motor control development (affecting timing and muscle coordination), or medical causes like stroke, trauma or brain injury.
Contrary to popular belief, stuttering in children is rarely caused by emotional trauma, although it is exacerbated by stress.
What are the features of stuttering in children?
For many children with a stutter, the first signs are noticed in early childhood, between the ages of 2-4. It is more common in boys than in girls.
Sometimes, the rate of speech is not fast enough for children to express their thinking and stammering can occur, this may well resolve with age as the motor control increases.
Stuttering can be mild and barely noticed by the child themselves, or can be so significant that it is accompanied with muscle tightening, facial tics, rapid eye blinking, tremors of the lips, head jerking and clenched fists.
It may develop over time, or begin suddenly.
Understandably, severe stuttering can produce anxiety in children, particularly if they are expected to deliver speeches at school, or are experiencing bullying about their verbal fluency. Sometimes, children are unkind about speech differences, however this is more of an issue in primary and high school than early learning environments.
My child stutters, what can I do?
Making sure that the stuttering child is well supported, is receiving SLT (speech language therapy) and that their school and teacher are aware of the factors involved is crucial.
Early intervention improves the recovery outcome for children, so the sooner you get them help, the easier it will be for them. High expectations can heap stress upon the stuttering child, so try to focus on what they are saying rather than their difficulties saying it.
Maintaining eye contact while they are talking and resisting the urge to finish their sentences is also important. If they voice their frustrations, listen and acknowledge what they are dealing with.
Talking with a Plunket nurse or Well Child practitioner can help you with access to available services while your child is of pre-school age, but what to do once they have reached school age?
Get the educators involved.
Teachers can help students to explain stuttering to the class to eliminate misconceptions and educate peers about the nature of a child’s stutter.
Once other children understand the nature of a speech difference, they will better be able to accommodate a peer dealing with this issue. The Ministry of Education also has resources to help you and your child navigate the school years with dysfluency.
You can call them on 0800 622 222. See below for additional sources of information. Armed with strategies for coping with the mechanics of their speech and the understanding of those around them, a child with a stammer can be an effective verbal communicator.
Where can I find out more?
In New Zealand, we have the Stuttering Treatment and Research Trust (START). You can find them here. Their site has useful links including courses, professional therapists, and how to get help. The Speech Language Therapist’s Association website is very useful. And the New Zealand Speak Easy Association run support groups in the major centres.
Now you know a little more about what you can do if your child develops a stutter. You may want to check out more expert advice in our School Age Education section.