How to empower children who stutter

Should you intervene when a child stutters or let them struggle? Is it best to talk openly about stuttering or not acknowledge it at all? Why do children often hide their stutter? A speech therapist offers insights for parents on how to support children who stutter

Addi Rimel|
We've all been late for class or pretended not to know the answer to a question, but for children who stutter, these common tactics serve a different purpose: concealing their speech impediment out of fear of negative reactions from their surroundings.
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What is stuttering?
Stuttering is a speech disorder with a neurophysiological basis, unrelated to psychological or emotional factors. It is caused by a physical malfunction in the motor system of speech. Debunking previous theories that blamed trauma or parenting, the current therapeutic approach focuses on active coping with stuttering, reducing avoidance, and promoting positive speaking experiences. It is worth noting that there is no known cure for stuttering, despite various claims to the contrary.
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Approximately 5% of children aged 2-7 experience stuttering to some degree, with most cases resolving within a year or two. However, some may continue to stutter into adulthood.

How do you treat a stutter?

Recent research has revolutionized the treatment of stuttering, moving away from teaching patients to hide their speech impediment to instead promoting coping mechanisms and positive speaking experiences. Omri Lipzin, head of Ambi, a group supporting individuals who stutter in Israel, advocates for this approach.
"The reason for this is that when you put all the weight on strategies to create fluency, you actually signal to the patient that stuttering is something that must be hidden at all costs, thus perpetuating the mechanism of hiding and shame," he says.
"The change in the approach to dealing with stuttering is giving greater weight to the discourse on living alongside stuttering, promoting quality of life and a positive speech experience even when speech is not fluent.”
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Continuous attempts to hide a stutter can have long-term consequences on a person's quality of life, starting in childhood and continuing throughout their life. The shame, fear, and disappointment that accompany this concealment take a heavy toll on the child. As a society, we have a responsibility to create an accessible and appropriate environment for children, particularly in the education system. For instance, teachers should refrain from measuring reading speed and fluency, waiving the child's participation in ceremonies in advance, completing sentences for the child, and so on.
Stuttering is often stigmatized and misunderstood, which can contribute to the child's reluctance to speak openly about their condition. When encountering a child with a limitation or difficulty, it is crucial to consider how we can help them without causing further distress. Consulting with the child themselves and seeking guidance from speech therapists or counseling teams can be beneficial.

Why do children tend to hide their stutter?

A recent study found that children often hide their stutter due to the fear of receiving harmful responses or experiencing sanctions from their environment. They may view fluent speech as the ideal and learn techniques of concealment during stuttering treatments, leading to further distress and a decreased quality of life.
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Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about stuttering in children:
Should you talk to the child about their stammer or ignore it and "not make a fuss about it"? If a child is struggling with stuttering, it's important to name it and discuss it with them in a sensitive, age-appropriate, and inclusive manner. By doing so, the child can gain an understanding of their condition and not feel isolated. It's also crucial to ask the child how they want to handle interactions with their classmates and friends, and support them in their preferred approach. Avoid pressuring the child to hide or "get rid of" their stutter, as this can create unnecessary stress and guilt.
What tools can you impart to the child to treat their stutter? Education about stuttering can be a helpful tool in overcoming it. Equipping the child and their environment with accurate information about stuttering can prevent negative reactions from others. If a child is struggling to get their words out and someone reacts with impatience or frustration, the child can calmly explain their stutter and ask for a moment to complete their sentence. This approach also reinforces the idea that the child is not responsible for the reactions of others to their stuttering.
Should you let a child who stutters speak for themselves or help them? It's important to emphasize to the child that it's okay to stutter, and to build their confidence in their ability to communicate effectively. Avoid completing their words or interrupting them, and instead listen patiently until they finish speaking. Encouraging the child to participate in meetings or groups with other children or people who stutter can also help them gain confidence and reduce feelings of isolation.
Is a person who stutters normal? The answer is an unequivocal yes. People who stutter do not differ from the general population in terms of intelligence and skills. This message is crucial to convey to children, as those who wear glasses, have excess weight, or are shorter than average - individuals who stutter have the same abilities as any other person and can achieve any goal they choose.
How to create a safe environment at school? Teachers may not possess all the facts concerning stuttering, making it difficult for them to address the child's difficulties. Other times, they may be unfamiliar with the emotional complexity the child experiences. Making adjustments such as providing more time, allowing the child to choose when it is their turn, and avoiding "surprise questions" while informing educators and staff can simplify the situation for the child. When should you seek treatment? In some cases, seeking a speech therapist specializing in stuttering may be advised. For example, if the stuttering worsens, causing accompanying movements such as hiding the mouth with the hand, tilting the head to the side, or lasting longer than a period of 3 to 6 months. Additionally, seeking guidance to better communicate with and understand the child's needs can be helpful. Seeking help is essential if further difficulties with pronunciation or language-related challenges arise.
Training for parents, without the presence of the child, is common in many cases. Although stuttering may pass naturally at an early age, consulting professionals is a crucial step to help the child cope with their challenges.

Adi Rimel is a speech therapist who treats stuttering, director of the Medabrim center in Netanya.
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