One of the most common questions I hear from parents is “How do I respond to my child that stutters?” Many parents worry that if they attract attention to their child’s stutter it may get worse. Let me put your mind at ease: stuttering is neurologically based and does not develop from an outside influence, so you did not cause your child’s stuttering by your reactions, your discipline, or your parenting. Having said that, your reaction can be helpful to your child by encouraging them and possibly leading to improvements in her speech. Here are a few strategies to consider:
Allow your child to have the time they need to finish their own sentences and thoughts.
It may be tempting to “help” your child when they are experiencing a stutter because you may be thinking, “I know what they are trying to say, so I’ll help them to finish their sentence.” It is best to resist this temptation and allow your child to finish their own thoughts. Finishing a child’s sentences for them may give the child the impression that they’re taking too long, or that their stutter is controlling them to the point where listeners do not care about what they are saying and are simply focusing on how they are saying it. In fact, they may want to say something entirely different than what you expect, and even if they aren’t they need to be confident they can speak for themselves.
Focus on the content of what your child is saying and not the manner in which they are saying it.
Every child has his own unique personality, and verbal expression is one of the many ways in which they can convey it. Children love to share about their friends, their school day, and may even have their own silly jokes. It is important to listen and allow your child to communicate with you and respond based on the content of what they said rather than immediately commenting on your child’s stutter or how many “bumps” you just heard.
Be aware of your own facial expressions and eye contact.
Children are incredibly perceptive and recognize the meaning behind a crinkled eyebrow, blank stare, slanted smile, heavy blinking, and every slight move of your face. While listening to your child speak, it is important to maintain a facial expression that conveys that you are listening and responding to what they are saying. Eye contact indicates that someone is listening and caring about what the speaker has to say. When eye contact is broken or interrupted, it may appear as though the listener is disinterested. Maintaining eye contact shows your child that you are listening to what they are saying and not getting distracted by their stuttering.
Model smooth, relaxed speaking.
Children tend to experience more difficulty with stuttering when they or others around them are speaking quickly. A fast rate of speech implies that there is more time pressure to “get your words out” and a child may feel pressure to keep up with the fast pace of the conversation. As you can imagine, it can be frustrating and discouraging if they are experiencing several stuttering events! A great way to model a less-hurried pace of speech is by slowing down your own speaking rate in order to model a more relaxed and easier form of speaking.
In addition, it may be helpful to model “smooth speaking” by repeating your child’s sentence back to them in a relaxed manner and expanding on their sentence while continuing to model slow, easy speaking. An example could be a child saying, “I saw a kid in my class get in trouble” and the parent could repeat and expand with “A kid got in your class got in trouble? He must not have been following the rules.” While you are repeating and expanding, keep in mind that you are modeling a slow and relaxed manner of speaking so that the child can hear how their own words can sound “smooth” by following your model.
Encourage turn-taking in group settings.
In group conversations, such as family dinner with siblings, a social outing with grandparents or extended family, or getting together with family friends, it may be difficult for a child to jump into a moving conversation because there are few pauses. Situations like these can be overwhelming and frustrating for children who stutter, and they may avoid group-speaking situations or speaking out during class because of the pressure placed on speaking quickly.
A great way to alleviate the pressure and overwhelming nature of group conversations is to practice at home where your child is more comfortable. For example, over dinner, ask each person to talk about their day one at a time and encourage the members of the group to respond one at a time before the next person has their turn to summarize their day. This turn-taking model allows for each person to have their own guaranteed “speaking time,” rather than risking everyone talking over one another and placing pressure on your child who stutters to interrupt or “jump in.” Parents can be wonderful facilitators of turn-taking during conversations by pausing a group conversation if turn-taking has ceased and creating pauses where any individual can “jump in.”
If you have a large or boisterous family, it may challenging to slow the rest of the group down. In that case, try the “pass the football” technique. The process is simple but clear: hand a football or other small but clearly visible object to someone to start the conversation. Only the person holding the football is allowed to speak; all others wait for a turn with the football. When each person finishes speaking, they pass the football to someone else.
Remember, these strategies may take time to incorporate into your daily lifestyle. Don’t be discouraged if you find them difficult in the beginning. Be encouraged that you can truly empower and encourage your child to have confidence in their speaking!
Rebecca Sabo, Speech Language Pathologist