A stammer (or a stutter as it’s called in the US) can make speech in children more difficult to understand. While one in 12 children will be affected by one, many outgrow it and treatment can be successful. Jenna Farmer explains all about stammering, and how to support a child with one
Most of us might struggle to get a word out from time to time, but if your child gets stuck on words, repeats syllables (such as saying ‘mu-mu-mu’ before mummy) or makes sounds longer, they may in fact have a stammer.
Stammers aren’t uncommon, but can feel stressful, especially with young children who have developmental stammering, which arises in the early years between 18 months and five years when speech is developing. This can make communication more frustrating for both the child and parent.
That’s not to say only children have stammers, as some will take a stammer into adulthood, while there is also another type called acquired or late-onset stammering in adults, but this is much rarer.
But why do stammers happen in the first place? Well, there can be many causes of stammer, with experts believing it could be a combination of things, such as the way language develops, our environment, or even our genetics (since two thirds of those who stammer have a family history, according to nhs.uk).
What can I do to support my child’s stammer?
First of all, be reassured that you’re not the only one going through this, especially with a young child. According to the NHS, stammering is relatively common in childhood.
“Stammering is more common than you may think within preschoolers, and there’s a lot you can do within the environment to help,” says speech therapist Karen Massey, of All About Speech Therapy.
It’s also worth noting that the NHS suggests two thirds of children with a stammer go on to speak fluently, and in some cases, where it is short-lived, intervention may not be needed at all. The Stuttering Foundation, in America, states that between 75–80% of those children who develop a stammer may find it resolves without formal speech therapy within one to two years.
However, either way, there’s lots of help out there. The main intervention your child will be given is likely to be speech therapy, which can help teach your child to slow down their speech, and correct the stammer.
The first thing you may be asked to try is indirect therapy, which is where parents make changes to the way they communicate and the home environment, rather than specifically targeting their child’s speech. This is usually the first strategy to try if your child is under five. It can take the pressure off young children and have a real impact.
“Think of a stammer as an imbalance where demands outweigh capacity to talk, so reducing demands in the environment can make a big difference. Things like pausing more, giving your child extra time to talk, letting them know you’re listening, spending one-to-one time with them leading play – even if only for five minutes at a time – and trying to stay calm yourself,” explains Karen Massey.
If your child stammers, it’s also really important not to interrupt them or criticise their stammer as they are speaking. Instead, focus on what they’re trying to tell you rather than the stammer itself. “Try not to draw attention to any stammering, and focus more on the message, rather than the way they are talking,” adds Karen.
Often, these changes make a real difference, but not all parents will find these adaptations a success. If that’s the case, don’t panic.
“If you have already been following the environmental advice, adapting your own communication, and it isn’t making a difference, then now is the time to speak to a speech and language therapist who specialises in dysfluency (stammering), as your child may benefit from more of an individual approach to therapy,” explains Karen.
Karen advises this is also the case if the stammer is starting to impact your child significantly.
“Perhaps your child is more aware of their stammer, and it is starting to impact their confidence, or your child is older and you worry it is not something that will go away.”
If this is the case, your child may receive targeted direct therapy instead. One of these treatments is the Lidcombe Program, which is done under the guidance of a speech and language therapist. This programme has been proven to have a significant impact on stammering, with a study in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology reporting its success, though the length of time required would depend on the severity of the initial stammer.
While stammers can be tricky, do rest assured that there are different therapies out there to support you and your child that can make a real difference. We also know that stammers are easier to treat when children are younger, so reaching out for support and guidance as soon as you notice a stammer is really important.
Whatever route you decide to take, know that you aren’t alone. And seeking support ensures that you get the last word in how you tackle this challenge, together.