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Parenting Advice Column
Subject: Six-year-old boy develops a stutter

QUESTION:

Jan:

I hope that you can address a problem that I am facing with my six-year-old son.

Jon left his familiar preschool for a summer camp program with older kids last June. A few weeks later he developed noticeable but minor stutter. After starting kindergarten in the fall, the problem worsened and has only become even worse with time. The school speech therapist is a nice but over-worked woman who simply advised us early in the year to watch and wait. She expected the problem would go away if we ignored it. Now, after having a comprehensive evaluation at a local clinic we are being told that Jon is a severe stutterer who will require speech therapy twice a week - as soon as a spot in the program becomes available.

The only major thing that happened to Jon when the stuttering began was leaving his preschool and going to a day camp where he was one of the younger kids (he had been one of the older children in preschool). This pattern of being the younger one continued when he started kindergarten (in our state the kindergarten is in with the elementary school kids). Of course summer involved a change in routine - but nothing drastic. We did take a vacation - but it went well and only lasted a week. Other stresses that could be significant include him having an older and very verbal sister. She dominates everything - games, conversation, etc. She has been asked to give Jon an opportunity to lead once in a while - with some success. Our lives are busy - two working parents, two school age kids, etc.

No one appears to be pressuring Jon now - he does well in school and has many friends. He gets a little frustrated by his speech sometimes but usually he seems unaware of the stuttering. He knows something is not right, but his personality has not been affected yet.

We have seen the videos that describe how parents can help, and we have read tons of literature on the subject of stuttering but nothing really addresses why the child would start to stutter after speaking so clearly - and nothing offers much reassurance that he will be O.K. Any encouragement you can offer would be appreciated.

Janet


JAN'S REPLY:

The Stuttering Home Page is an excellent site. A good place to start would be Information on Stuttering/Stuttering FAQ.

As for the reassurance you ask for, the good news is that most children who stutter outgrow it.

Here are the most pertinent paragraphs from the Stuttering Home Page:

"The question 'What causes stuttering?' is really two questions, one easy to answer, one hard to answer.

"The easy question is 'What causes stuttering in adults?' The answer is that we stuttered when we were children. The speech patterns we learn as children -- accent, grammar, language, etc. -- become "hard-wired" as our brains grow. An adult stutterer can learn to talk fluently about as easily as an adult nonstutterer can learn to speak Chinese.

"Because stuttering develops as a child's speech and language develops, this disorder is called developmental stuttering. Developmental stuttering is distinguished from neurogenic stuttering (caused by strokes and head injuries) and psychogenic stuttering (caused by psychological trauma).

"The hard question is 'What causes stuttering in children?' Childhood stuttering looks simple compared to the complex behaviors of adult stuttering. But while the cause of adult stuttering is simple, the cause of childhood stuttering is an enigma. Many theories have been proposed, but none is compelling."

With children, an important factor would be pressure - regardless of whether it was the initial cause. You might consider the question of who or what causes Jon to feel pressured to speak correctly, or pressured to avoid mistakes in general. The other factors are the feelings of being rushed and of being the focus of undue attention. Whatever can be done to help him feel relaxed and not "on the spot" would be beneficial.

If homeschooling can be arranged, that could be very beneficial, particularly if an unstructured approach were taken. If this is possible, the books How Children Learn and Teach Your Own (both by John Holt) would be very useful. With both parents working, homeschooling may not be possible now, but perhaps might become a possibility in the future. Even if Jon remains in school, I would still recommend How Children Learn. This book can be very helpful in establishing a more relaxed approach to school activities and assignments.

Of course, the irony with a situation like stuttering is that parents and teachers quite naturally become concerned, and may inadvertently do the very things which may further the child's feelings of being pressured, rushed, or "on the spot." The best approach would be for the parents to "let go", using whatever means they find most helpful to accomplish this within their own lives (rest, attention to diet, avoidance of stress, meditation, yoga, and so on.) Otherwise, it can become a vicious cycle of stuttering - parental worry - child anxiety - stuttering. Remembering that most stuttering in childhood disappears in time could be helpful in letting go of worry.

I'd like you to look through the information on the Stuttering Home Page. After reading it, let me know if you have more specific questions.

Jan

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