Why is it so difficult to talk with a child about stammering?
This is above all due to the peculiar development of stammering as a speech disorder. In the majority of cases, it begins with small repetitions, which do not cause much concern (there are of course exceptions, i.e. children who exhibit very severe stammering right from the start). From a certain point, which is determined by how severe the dysfluency is and how long it lasts, parents begin to be concerned. Perhaps they then try to help the child by saying: "Speak slowly", "Take a deep breath", "Think what you want to say before you say it..."etc..
When these self-help strategies bring about very little or no improvement, parents take the next step which is usually to ask a paediatrician for advice. What they get to hear is normally "Ignore the stammering, it will go away again. Do not mention it to the child". In itself, this advice is not wrong, as statistics show that up to 80% of non-fluent children will regain fluency over a certain period of time.
So, you follow the advice as far as possible. One year passes, two years pass, the stammer does not go away and you still hear from the doctors "Give him time, he will grow out of it". You observe changes in the stammer. There are phases during which your child hardly stammers at all. You are relieved, until your child becomes more dysfluent again. What's more, the child blocks: sometimes he stands there with his mouth open and nothing comes out. You would like to help your child but you don't know how. You are still following the advice to ignore stammering. But by now the stammer has reached a stage where it can no longer be ignored. Perhaps you hear about first episodes of bullying, or you observe that your child stops talking after more severe blocks.
You are trapped. You would like to help your child, and at the same time you are afraid that any help might aggravate the problem. Didn't they already tell you that your attempts at self-help ("speak slowly", "take a deep breath", etc.) were wrong, could even have led to more severe stuttering? Thus, the understandable fear of causing irreparable damage by making a wrong comment grows.
Together with your partner, you are trying to find out what can be done for the child, to free him from the stammer. Should you wait a bit longer before having a second child? Would a Montessori kindergarten be less stressful? Should I, as a mother, delay my return to work? What can and what can't I demand of my child? Should the father spend more time at home? A stammering child frequently has far-reaching, and often positive effects on family life, but they often do not achieve the desired aim of fluent speech.
When and why is it important to speak with the child?
As soon as you observe that the child himself notices his stammering and has already experienced reactions of other people to his non-fluency, you should no longer ignore it. It is easier to deal with problems when one can identify and discuss them. You should be a partner for your child with whom he can talk about his stammer. It is also better for the child to talk with you first, before he experiences negative reactions. It is easier to find solutions for problems arising from stammering when the dysfluency has a name. This name does not necessarily have to be "stammering". You can use expressions like "making words jump", "stumble", "bumpy", "get stuck", etc..
How can I start talking about stammering?
As a parent member, you are already well informed about stammering. This means, you have created a good base for a conversation with your child. It is a good idea to choose an everyday situation, not loaded by emotions, to start the conversation, to avoid giving stammering more importance than necessary. The following might serve as an example:
Child: Mumumumummy/Dadadadadaddy, c-c-c-c-can you get mmmmmmmmme the b-b-b-bowl?
Parent: Yes (gets the bowl). Say, do you also notice that you sometimes make your words jump like "Mumumummy" just now?
Child: Yes, sometimes my mouth does things like that.
Parent: And what do you think about it?
Child: Somsomsometimes it is rrrreally stupid.
Parent: Can you say what is so stupid about it?
Child: When the moumouth ssssimply goes on and on, and I-I-I- can't do anything. Som-sometimes the others l-l-l-augh about it, too.
Parent: What you say is that your mouth simply does what it wants. Do others laugh about it a lot?
Child: Only sometimes. Does it go away again?
Parent: I have read once that it goes away again with most children, but not with all.
Thus you can find many situations in which you can talk about dysfluency. Showing pity, or making light of problems (if there are any) is inappropriate. Assume a basic attitude of interest, without claiming to find an immediate solution or to have an answer for all of the child's questions. Once you have made a start further talks are generally easier.
This article appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of 'Speaking Out' and has been printed in translation from the Federal German Association for Stutterers Self-help (Bundesvereinigung für Stotterer-Selbsthilfe) Parents Newsletter of June 1995, by kind permission.
* 'he' is used for clarity, and because boys are more commonly affected than girls.