As many as 1 in 10 children in the UK will encounter speech problems. If this is your family, you may wonder whether stammering can be cured. Being the parent of a child with speech difficulties can be heartbreaking and frustrating. Sadly I know, because I am one. Our son Finn started to show signs of stammering around the age of 5. He was diagnosed by a Speech Therapist at the age of 6. What has followed has been a bumpy 5 years of tears, stress and feelings of shame.
‘M-m-m-m-mum! I don’t want to talk about stammering!’
What we learned through becoming parents of a stammerer is that there is a huge amount of emotion linked to a child’s speech problems. At first it didn’t bother him. Then, as Finn approached 7 years old he had a couple of questions from curious kids at school about why he ‘talks funny’. That was enough to send him spiralling into anxiety. By 10 he became more and more self-conscious about himself, and so the worry about how others perceived him grew.
Sometimes he would go through a patch of acquiring various facial tics while having difficulty talking- pulling his mouth to the side or blinking repeatedly. The tics would then disappear after a spell and be replaced with something different. Not only is it hard seeing your child having such problems speaking, but knowing how frustrating it must be for him every day makes us feel helpless as parents.
Shame and low self-esteem
Sadly Finn’s self esteem has suffered. His feelings over his stammering were so heavy for several years that he would shove his head under his pillow and cry if one of us tried to talk to him and help him about it. ‘Don’t talk about it, it upsets me,’ is all he could muster.
It seems that this is a common theme among child stammerers. Many of the sheets that we have in our speech therapy folder given to us by the therapists concern self-esteem, identity and feeling good about yourself.
No amount of love, hugs or reassurance from us helped him feel better emotionally. It wasn’t until he made a close friend at school and found the courage to tell his new buddy about his stammer that he crossed a bridge and can now talk openly about it.
An uphill battle
That’s not to say, though, that with a management plan in place all is well. It is not simple, stammering can’t just be ‘cured’. We are on our third spate of speech therapy and I can’t yet see much of a change, sadly. The difficulty is that making a stammer ‘easier’ requires the stammerer to learn to alter how they speak: their pacing, their breathing, and various techniques that they can employ to help.
However, naturally, when you’ve had several years of talking a certain way and are used to it, those tactics aren’t terribly easy to employ, particularly for a child gabbling excitedly with their friends on a playground.
Finn has struggled to remember to breathe before words, or slow his speech down in order to help himself. It’s not that he doesn’t want to get better, but he finds it hard. We try to practice his techniques every day but progress is slow. We praise him for the efforts he is making.
He feels crushed if one of us accidentally finishes a sentence that he has got ‘stuck’ on. It’s not always apparent whether he is finding a word tricky or if he is just thinking of what word he means, and by making a suggestion we might put our foot in it.
The dad’s point of view
Like me, my husband Steve has found it hard parenting a stammerer. ‘You need to be really patient,’ he says, ‘not only because Finn takes a long time to get words out, but also in helping him try to find a solution and work at it. It’s not easy because it’s an emotional subject for him and sometimes we have inadvertently upset him by trying to help him when he is stuck on a word. We found out that not only does it offend him, but that it’s good for him to say it himself. You kind of have to un-learn your natural parenting instincts in that way; you naturally think that helping someone when they’re struggling is the right thing to do. In this case, though, you have to alter your behaviour somewhat in order to help.’
What was particularly interesting during Finn’s therapy was learning how different body parts work together to produce sounds. Finn learnt through a chart how his brain, lungs, tongue and teeth all play a part in saying different different letters. For instance, a ‘g’ sound comes from the back of the tongue, while a ‘p’ sound requires breath and the lips. It’s something we don’t ever have to give thought to until we have to.
We also learnt that it is unknown why some people stammer, but that boys tend to stammer more than girls. However, although it isn’t straightforward and stammering can’t be just ‘cured’ it is known that stress and anxiety make it worse, and we can definitely tell that from our own experience: Finn definitely struggles more when he is worried about something at school, or a problem with a friend. Therefore, we try to let Finn have enough time every day to chill out. It can be tempting to book him in to every after school club that interests him or fill the week with play dates, but what he needs is down time and quiet sometimes.
Speech problems can be wide-ranging and varied
Stammering is only one issue that can be helped with speech therapy. There are many others including:
- cleft lip
- feeding and swallowing
- hearing impairment
- speech sound difficulties.
If you suspect that your child may be having a problem speaking or articulating themselves, your first port of call would be your GP, who can then refer you to Speech and Language Therapy services if necessary.
It’s always worth getting advice, even if you’re not sure whether there is a problem.
The Michael Palin Centre For Stammering website is a great resource of information. They also provide training courses and therapy.
The Stamma organisation also have a helpful helpline and website.
The Cbeebies website also has helpful information for parents about childrens’ speech problems.