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Helping a Stutterer

During a long weekend away visiting family, Diane Weitekamper, of Chicago, noticed that her 3-year-old son was having difficulty speaking. "He was tired and anxious, surrounded by people he didn't know," she recalls, "and he began having trouble saying the first word of each sentence." It got progressively worse, to the point that he'd repeat syllables up to 13 times before he could finally get the word out.

Many children go through periods of disfluency-repeating words and punctuating thoughts with "uh" and "um." In more severe forms, as with Weitekamper's son, it becomes a stutter, a relatively normal occurrence among young kids, especially boys, who are four times more likely to develop one than girls.

"Most stuttering starts around age three," says Diane Paul-Brown, Ph.D., a director in the speech-language pathology division of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), in Rockville, MD. "It's due to the child learning to handle his expanding vocabulary, and usually disappears within six months to a year." If he continues to stutter longer than that, he may require speech therapy, since the problem doesn't usually go away on its own in older kids.

In mild cases of stuttering, children repeat words ("Go-go-go park"). In more serious ones, such as that of Weitekamper's son, they repeat parts of words ("Wa-wa-wa-want"). In the worst cases, they simply can't say some words at all. (Weitekamper's son overcame his stutter after working with a speech pathologist for about seven months.)

Stuttering may be accompanied by rapid blinking, grimacing, irregular breathing, or head jerking as a result of the effort a child makes to get the words out. Sometimes he'll even hit his head with his hand.

To help:

  • Speak easily and slowly to your child so he's able to organize what he's hearing and how he wants to respond.

  • Make eye contact with him to boost his confidence and let him know you're listening.

  • Don't interrupt him in the middle of a sentence or fill in words for him when he's having trouble.

  • Resist the temptation to say "slow down," "relax," or "stop and think"  -- such remarks can heighten his tension.

  • Be calm when your child stammers. Reacting with discouraging facial expressions will make him more uncomfortable.

  • Never scold a child for stuttering, nor praise him for fluent speech (it could make him more self-conscious and put extra pressure on him to earn your praise).

  • Seek help from a speech therapist even before age 3 if your child visibly struggles with his speech, and is self-aware and frustrated while trying to communicate.