Speech-language pathologists and parents of young children who stutter have long been warned not to talk to children about stuttering for fear that drawing attention to the children’s speech makes the stuttering worse.1 The idea originates with a decades-old theory suggesting that parental reactions to normal disfluencies cause children to become concerned about their speech and therefore develop “true” stuttering.2 Today, we know that this is not true.
Talking to children about stuttering will not make them worse. In fact, it can help them overcome the challenges associated with stuttering!3
Talking About Stuttering Does Not Cause Stuttering
Historically, researchers and clinicians thought that preschool children were too young to know that they stuttered. We feared that children would develop negative reactions to their speech if they understood their difficulty talking.1 We went to great lengths to try to keep children from developing awareness about their speaking challenges. These included using only indirect approaches to treatment, like avoiding talk about stuttering in front of the child, and sometimes we even stopped using the word “stuttering” altogether!
Recent research shows that even very young children may be aware of stuttering—and some acutely so.4-7 The traditional strategy of ignoring stuttering is no longer appropriate.
In the 1990s, clinicians started using more direct treatment approaches with young children who stutter.8 Some of these approaches involved directly acknowledging stuttering to the child and others directly taught children speech management strategies.
Numerous research studies show that such treatments do not increase stuttering.8 Most children respond favorably to learning about speaking and stuttering, and the vast majority recover from stuttering completely. Therefore, we now know that it is okay to talk to children about stuttering.
Coloring Outside the Lines
Once we acknowledge that talking about stuttering is okay, the question becomes, what should we say?
Our best understanding of how children respond to early stuttering suggests that clinicians and parents should respond to stuttering the same way that they address any other difficulty a child may have when learning a complicated skill.3,9,10
For example, when young children learn to color, they often do so outside the lines. When this happens, parents don’t ignore the child’s drawing or pretend not to notice that the child colored outside the lines—especially if the child asks about it or expresses concern about it (as young children often mention or express concern about stuttering). Instead, they acknowledge the difficulty and let the child know that it’s okay to color outside the lines. They may say, “Oh yes, lots of children color outside the lines when they’re learning to color, but I really like the picture you drew!” This helps children know that they have nothing to fear. It also helps them accept mistakes as part of the learning process and prevents them from developing negative reactions.10
We can respond in the same way with stuttering. When children express concern about their speech, we can reassure them that trouble getting words out is just part of their learning. We can affirm for them that we are interested in what they are saying, not how they are saying it. This helps them learn to speak freely, whether or not they stutter. Speaking with confidence creates successful communication. Therefore, talking about stuttering can actually prevent the negative communicative experiences that plague older children and adults who stutter.
Changing Your Approach
It can be hard at first for clinicians to overcome years of conditioning that they should not talk about stuttering. Still, our experience suggests that it gets easier. When clinicians see that children respond well to knowing they stutter, this can open up a whole new world for stuttering therapy. It’s okay to talk about stuttering—the benefits for children, parents, and clinicians are clear. Give it a try. You can do it!
Learn more about stuttering therapy from Dr. Yaruss by pre-ordering his new book, Early Childhood Stuttering Therapy: A Practical Guide.
- Bloodstein, O. (1993). Stuttering: The search for a cause and cure. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Johnson, W., Van Riper, C., Davis, D., Scarbrough, H., Hunsley, Y., Bakes, F., Travis, L., & Dwyer, S. (1942). A study of the onset and development of stuttering. Journal of Speech Disorders, 7, 251–257.
- Yaruss, J.S., Coleman, C., & Hammer, D. (2006). Treating preschool children who stutter: Description and preliminary evaluation of a family-focused treatment approach. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 37, 118-136.
- Boey, R.A., Van de Heyning, P.H., Wuyts, F.L., Heylen, L., Stoop, R., & De Bodt, M.S. (2009). Awareness and reactions of young stuttering children aged 2-7 years old towards their speech disfluency. Journal of Communication Disorders, 42, 344-346.
- Ezrati-Vinacour, R., Platzky, R., & Yairi, E. (2001). The young child's awareness of stuttering-like disfluency. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44, 368-80.
- Langevin, M., Packman, A., & Onslow, M. (2009). Peer responses to stuttering in the preschool setting. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 264-276.
- Vanryckeghem, M., Brutten, G.J., & Hernandez, L.M. (2005). A comparative investigation of the speech-associated attitude of preschool and kindergarten children who do and do not stutter. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 30, 307-318.
- Bloodstein, O. & Bernstein Ratner, N. (2008). A handbook on stuttering (6th ed.). Clifton Park, NY: Thomson/Delmar Learning.
- Logan, K.J., & Yaruss, J.S. (1999). Helping parents address attitudinal and emotional factors with young children who stutter. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 26, 69-81.
- Yaruss, J.S., & Reeves, N. (2017). Early childhood stuttering therapy: A Practical Guide. McKinney, TX: Stuttering Therapy Resources.