Many kids stutter at some point during childhood. For some, it’s a random occurrence and never becomes an issue. For other kids, though, stuttering can persist into the adolescent years and beyond.
The question many parents have about stammering in children is simple: When should I be concerned?
While the answer will depend on each child’s specific situation, the short answer is that it never hurts to tell a doctor about your concerns.
“If it just occurs on a day and then it doesn’t occur for a week, then probably we can write it off. When it starts occurring regularly, daily in most conversation, or if the child is struggling with it or expressing frustration, then those are all good moments to say let’s go find a speech pathologist,” says Dr. Richard M. Merson, Ph.D., a speech and language pathologist and stuttering specialist who was with Beaumont’s Stuttering Center in Royal Oak at the time of this interview.
What causes stuttering?
Stuttering, also known as stammering, is the involuntary repetition of sounds – especially initial consonants – during speech. It occurs in about one percent of the population, Merson says.
Parents should know that stuttering can occur as an inheritable disorder or as a result of a brain injury, seizures or certain medications.
When it is familial, stuttering usually appears between the ages of 3 and 5.
“That’s when it begins in the majority of cases because that’s the period in which kids begin to develop speech in sequences, sentences and phrases. It’s that pattern, that rhythm that’s broken up by stuttering,” Merson says.
When it begins after age 5 or during adulthood, it is more likely to be caused by a brain injury. But even toddlers who begin stuttering should be evaluated to ensure there’s not an underlying medical cause, he says.
“Many pediatricians will decide that you don’t need to go see the speech pathologist because this problem is developmental and comes and goes,” he says.
And while stuttering will resolve on its own for about 75 percent of kids who develop it between ages 3-5, other causes still need to be considered.
“Pediatricians are used to seeing that occurrence so they’ll say let’s just wait and see if it resolves. We like to see them all and make sure that it is standard stuttering or stuttering due to some injury,” Merson says. “We like to see young children as young as 2. We’ll see them that early to begin treatment.”
Since stuttering occurs at the beginning of a word or phrase, therapists teach patients to draw out the first syllable in a word like the “baaa” in “balloon.”
“If we can get the onset to be nice and easy we can usually inhibit the stuttering,” Merson says.
Speech pathologists often work to eliminate the struggling behaviors of stuttering, like trying to “squeeze” or force the word out, by teaching a “soft, easy stuttering,” he says. They also use words like “bumpy speech” and try to make sure kids aren’t ashamed of their speech.
“We try to get them to be proud of their speech rather than so negative about it,” Merson says.
Parents, of course, are an important part of the process. In fact, some parents of very young children are able to begin speech therapy tactics at home and return to the clinic in 90 days to check on the child’s progress.
“If the mother can do this well it’s much better to have the mother facilitate fluency in these early years than a clinician. Very often in those early years we try to get the parents to take on that role,” Merson says.
Is it stuttering?
Vicki Kellogg, a speech-language pathologist based in Michigan who has an office in Chelsea and exclusively treats stuttering, says sometimes children around age 3 or 4 begin what seems like stuttering but actually isn’t.
“A lot of children start to manifest a type of stuttering, or a repetition of sounds, somewhere around 3 to 4 years old. That’s when a lot of parents will come to a speech therapist and say, ‘I think my child is stuttering,'” Kellogg says. “Quite often a lot of those children aren’t actually stuttering.”
Instead, they may be “place-holding” in the conversation because the child’s mind is working ahead of his mouth.
“They don’t want people to interrupt them. Especially in a big family you will find that,” she says. “That is not uncommon for toddlers.”
Parents should suspect an actual problem if the stuttering continues regularly or if children begin to show struggling behaviors like squeezing their eyes or making a strange face – also called “blocking.”
“When you see those secondary characteristics, then you know you really have to get with a therapist,” Kellogg says.
Parents can start the process of getting help by contacting the local school district for an evaluation. Parents should also talk to their pediatrician and contact a speech center if their concerns aren’t being addressed.
Kellogg says she has found that it’s “rare” for stuttering to truly go away completely but says there are many effective strategies to reduce it.
“One of the problems with being a stutterer is you become so hyper-aware of your speech that you’re constantly looking for perfect speech, but none of us have perfect speech,” she says.
About 20-25 percent of stutterers will continue to stutter beyond ages 8 to 10, Merson says.
“If it persists beyond adolescence, it will be there for the rest of their life,” he says.
But many of these people learn strategies to make the stuttering almost unnoticeable, Merson says, pointing out that former Vice President Joe Biden and Arnold Schwarzenegger both stutter yet many people are unaware.
“They can learn to deal with it so well that other people don’t know that they stutter,” he says. “There are a lot of famous people who stutter at home, spontaneously, during the week but when they’re on the set, in the court, in the classroom when they’re teaching, they learn to control it. So in that sense they have a very good resolution to the problem.”
Not everyone will be able to master that level of control, but even those who don’t should know their futures aren’t limited by stuttering. There are many doctors, lawyers, teachers and scientists who stutter, Merson says.
“They can learn to control it. It’s just at times more obvious,” he says. “The good news is they can learn to deal with it. We can give people effective communication in almost any situation if the individual commits to a lot of practice.”
This post was originally published in 2015 and is updated regularly.
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