Approximately 3 million Americans stammer or stutter when speaking and it can affect people of any age, including pre-teen children. Stammering or stuttering usually starts between the ages of 2 and 5 years old, but it can also begin at any time before teenage years. For those prone to stammering during the course of their pre-teen years, being in a supportive environment is helpful, whether at home with family, at school with schoolmates, or in social settings with friends. While there is no known cure for stammering, there are things you can do to help your pre-teen child improve his or her speech, and also to become more relaxed and confident when speaking in general.
How do I help my pre-teen child who stammers or stutters when speaking? Strategies for helping a pre-teen prone to stammering or stuttering include: showing compassion; listening with patience; refraining from finishing his/her sentences, making jokes about it, or telling the child to slow down; staying calm and relaxed while the child is speaking; keeping natural eye contact, and allowing the child time and space to communicate at his or her pace.
In researching the topic of stammering and consulting experts on the issue, I learned the most helpful tactics for helping a pre-teen with stammering or stuttering, including signs your child may need help with stammering, causes and cures, a number of useful strategies for helping pre-teens who are prone to stammering or stuttering, as well as dispelling some common myths about stuttering/stammering. Some of the strategies go against most of our natural tendencies as parents and caregivers when trying to help, so learning the most effective strategies is key.
What Is Stuttering or Stammering?
Stuttering (also referred to as “stammering” or “disfluent speech”) is a speech disorder characterized by: prolonging sounds; repetition of sounds (or words or syllables); or interruptions during speaking that pause the natural flow of speech. Individuals who stutter have difficulty getting the words out they want to say, even when the thoughts behind their speech are clear to them. When feeling challenging during speaking, they may exhibit accompanying signs such as rapid eye blinking or tremoring lips.
Stuttering is not an indication of any mental incompetency and is not an indication of intelligence levels.
Signs Your Pre-Teen Child May Need Help with His or Her Stammering / Stuttering
While we all stumble through speaking from time to time, here are some signs to watch for if you suspect your pre-teen may need help speaking without stammering or stuttering. Keep in mind that any of these indicators on occasion are normal, but if you notice repeated patterns and difficulties lasting more than six months, it may be time to seek help:
- A most common sign is if your child frequently repeats a sound at least a few times when beginning a word (such as saying “di-di-di-di-difficult”)
- Gets stuck on a word and swaps out a normal vowel sound by using “uh” (such as saying “uh-uh-uh-uh-anyone” or “suh-suh-suh-sometimes”)
- Often drags out particular sounds (such as saying “aaaaaaaaamazing”)
- Speaks quickly in an effort to get out what they’re trying to say before they have a chance to stammer through it
- Pauses for long periods of time at unusual times or in ways that don’t flow quite naturally
- Exhibits obvious distress when speaking
- Has more difficulty speaking when feeling stressed, nervous, or uncomfortable
Causes and Cures for Stammering / Stuttering
Most often, stammering occurs in childhood, and it seems to most often present as a neurological rather than physiological challenge. While causes of stuttering/stammering are still largely not understood, for those with this condition, subtle occurrences in the brain affect one’s ability to physically speak without difficulty. Stuttering tends to fall into two categories: developmental and neurogenic.
Developmental stuttering is most common and occurs in children as they are learning language and speech skills. Brain imaging studies have shown consistent variations between stuttering and non-stuttering individuals. So most scientists and clinicians believe that this form of stuttering stems from complexities regarding numerous factors. A primary indicator is genetics – stuttering tends to run in families.
Neurogenic stuttering is typically a result of one who has had a stroke, head or brain injury. This form of stuttering is significantly less common.
There is no known cure for stuttering/stammering, but there are numerous ways to treat the condition that may reduce or eliminate the challenging effects. If you suspect your pre-teen needs help with his/her speech condition, consulting a speech-langue pathologist can help determine the best treatment options.
Treatments options may include stuttering therapy, drug therapy, electronic devices, and self-help groups. Stuttering (speech-language) therapy is usually the first treatment option suggested.
Speech-language therapy is focused on teaching the child ways to minimize stammering when speaking (by speaking more slowly, regulated breathing, and practicing going from single-syllable verbal responses to more complex responses. Anxiety is usually a focus, as well, as many pre-teens who stutter also find that the conditions worsens as their anxiety increases. So stress and anxiety management is also beneficial.
How to Help a Pre-teen Child Who Stammers / Stutters
One of the best things you can do for a child who stutters is by providing a supportive environment in which s/he can practice speaking in a relaxed setting with patience and acceptance.
Here are some tips that can help when speaking with a stammering child in your care:
- When speaking with your child, speak at a relaxed and unhurried pace, and pause frequently. Rather than telling your child to “slow down” or “try again more slowly,” you are modeling the behavior yourself which is a far more effective approach.
This promotes acceptance and understanding that it is okay to speak slowly, rather than your child potentially feeling defensive that you are criticizing the way s/he speaks during their attempts.
- Refrain from asking many questions. Rather than asking multiple questions in a conversation with your child, spend more time commenting on what s/he has already said. This reinforces that you are listening and that what s/he says is valued and important to you. Asking too many questions can feel daunting and overwhelming to a child who feels already stressed when speaking.
- Use eye contact, body language, and facial expressions to let your child know that you are focused on the content of what s/he is saying rather than focusing on how successfully s/he is saying it. By exhibiting a focus on what your child is saying, s/he may feel less stressed by any stuttering that occurs, while also taking their own focus away from stuttering and moving it to getting their words out.
- Offer your undivided attention for a specific amount of time each day. During this time, let your child decide how the two of you spend that time, whether it’s talking or doing a separate activity. During this time with your child especially, speak in a relaxed and slow manner, pausing frequently.
S/he will come to depend on that bonding time with you and will feel more relaxed and comfortable opening up to talk with you. It offers daily opportunities for your child to practice speaking during a time that s/he depends on to know you are available and listening.
- Help all family members to take turns speaking and listening without interrupting. Pre-teens who stutter will find it much easier to speak and participate in discussions when they know others are listening with patience and understanding. When too many people are talking at once, it adds to any pressure s/he may already be feeling about feeling heard or feeling rushed to speak before someone else jumps in.
- Pay attention to the way you interact with your child. Use interactions with your child to refrain from criticism and reduce fast speech patterns, questions, and interruptions. Work on your own patience and active listening, while speaking slowly and pausing often.
- Most importantly, let your child know that you accept, love, and enjoy him/her exactly “as is.” Ensuring your child knows that s/he is accepted and that you enjoy his/her company (even when stammering) will be your most powerful ally in helping him or her to feel calm, confident, and loved.
Common Myths about Stammering / Stuttering
Dispelling common myths about stuttering can help you to better understand it. As the topic of stuttering comes up in conversation, you may hear one or more of these myths. By learning what is actually correct and true compared to what has been found NOT to be true, you can better navigate any stuttering-related speech challenges you pre-teen may be experiencing.
Myth #1: You should help your child by finishing his or her sentences when stuttering or stammering.
One thing that makes stuttering worse is when your child feels pressured to speak quickly. If you finish their sentences when s/he is struggling, your child may view that as a sign of impatience, adding pressure to something that’s already challenging. Allow your child the time s/he needs to say what they want to say – however long it takes. Your patience will help to increase your child’s confidence and will be a calming rather than stressful influence.
Myth #2: Lifestyle has no effect on a child’s stuttering.
For a child who is prone to stuttering, a hectic and busy lifestyle can worsen the condition. Being expected to rush through from one activity to the next, while not a cause of stuttering, leads to stress. If your pre-teen stutters, try rearranging your lifestyle to accommodate a slower pace to see if it helps.
Myth #3: You should ensure you don’t stutter in your child’s presence.
Stuttering often runs in families. If you or another caregiver or parents also stutters, it can actually be a helpful influence rather than a harmful one. When your child hears an adult stutter or have difficulty with their own speech – without getting upset about it – it can be a calming effect on your child. It allows your child a level of comfort in knowing that stuttering is a normal occurrence and is not a bad thing. If/when you stutter yourself, you might simply say “sometimes speaking is difficult, and that’s okay.” And then move on with a smile.
Myth #4: You caused your child’s stuttering.
A child’s stuttering is not something a parent or caregiver can cause. While the intricacies surrounding causes are still largely unknown, they fall into categories related most often to brain function and genetics. For children who are already prone to stuttering, stress and a busy lifestyle can worsen the condition, but those are not the underlying cause. Refer to the section earlier in this article for ways you can help your child ifs/he is challenged by stuttering or stammering.
Stuttering or stammering in pre-teens will most often resolve itself over time, usually by their teenage years or early adulthood. Meanwhile, you can reduce effects by offering support and acceptance, and by slowing down conversations with your child – and perhaps even slowing down a fast-paced hectic lifestyle. It helps to remember that stress does not cause stammering, but it most often worsens it for pre-teens who are already prone to it.