During his early years, Kanishk was a fluent speaker and was much ahead of his peers in hitting the speech and language development milestones. However, Ambika KC, a schoolteacher from Bangalore and his mother, noticed that he began stuttering when he was two and a half years old. While stuttering (also called stammering) is common in children, most of them outgrow it.
Kanishk, now seven years old, was stammering while trying to pronounce words beginning with the syllables ra, ka and ma. “He would even struggle to pronounce his name, which was a disheartening sight,” says Ambika.
Why do children stutter?
“Stuttering is a speech disorder,” says Radhika Poovayya, speech language pathologist and behavior analyst as well as the founder and director of Samvaad Institute of Speech and Hearing, Bangalore. “Children don’t begin stuttering as soon as they begin talking. The onset of stammering in kids is around two to six years of age,” she adds.
According to Dr Prerna Goenka, consultant, pediatrics and neonatology, Manipal Hospital, Salt Lake, Kolkata, the intensity of stuttering can vary. There can be periods where the person may speak fluently without stuttering, while at other times, they may stutter more than usual.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, stuttering is characterized by the following disfluencies:
- Repetitions: Repeating parts of words, sounds and syllables like “I w-w-w-w-want to play” or one-syllable word repetitions like “Go-go-go away.”
- Prolongations: Stretching a sound out for a long time. For example, “Ssssssssasha is my friend.”
- Blocks: Experiencing blocks in getting a word out. For instance, “I want a (pause) biscuit.”
Types of stammering
Dr Goenka elaborates on the different types of stuttering, which include:
- Developmental stuttering: This is the most common type of stuttering in children. It occurs around 2–5 years of age, when they are acquiring speech and language skills. During this phase, kids may stammer as their speech and language haven’t expanded enough to keep up with what they want to say. While most kids outgrow developmental stuttering, it may persist into adulthood in some.
- Acquired or neurogenic stuttering: This form of stuttering can occur due to a head injury, stroke or other neurological issues. Acquired stuttering is rare, and its onset is usually in adulthood.
What causes stuttering in children?
Nagalatha Pradeep, a Bangalore-based dentist and mother of 35-year-old Arjun Raju, says that her son began stammering when he was two and a half years old. She also adds that the condition runs in their family, and her husband and her brothers-in-law stammer.
“While the exact cause of stuttering is not known, hereditary factors can exert an influence,” says Poovayya. Ambika also mentions that stuttering has been seen in her family, giving the instance of her maternal uncle.
Stuttering in children: What parents shouldn’t do
Ambika was initially clueless and concerned about dealing with Kanishk’s stuttering. She was preoccupied with what people would say about it and make her predicament known to her son. “It was a conversation with a close friend that proved eye-opening. It dawned upon me that my approach towards him was detrimental,” notes Ambika.
“How a parent handles stuttering in their children during the early years can go a long way in improving or aggravating it,” says Dr Goenka. She cautions that if a parent constantly makes their child conscious, it can worsen their stammering and the condition may also persist into adulthood.
Stammering isn’t a learned behavior
Nagalatha had initially thought that her son was trying to imitate his father and uncles who stammered. It was only after he reached college that she started to understand his situation better and empathize with him. “Stammering is often misunderstood, and parents tend to blame the child or accuse them of doing it on purpose. However, it’s involuntary and cannot be learned,” says Poovayya.
Nagalatha recalls that her son became more reclusive during his teenage years, avoiding parties and family gatherings as a teen and young adult.
According to Dr Goenka, consequences in children can include their self-esteem taking a hit and their avoidance of social situations due to the fear of speaking. They may also alter their speech, including speaking at a slow pace or avoiding words that induce stuttering.
Timely intervention is crucial
Both Nagalatha and Ambika sought interventions in the form of speech therapy. Emphasizing the importance of early intervention, Poovayya says that the condition can be better controlled if interventions are sought in childhood itself, as the neural connections in the brain can be changed or altered easily during that period.
“Speech therapy can be combined with behavioral approaches where tokens and rewards can be used to motivate the child to incorporate the strategies outside of therapy,” says Poovayya.
How parents can help
Emphasizing the importance of gentle parenting, Dr Goenka says patience from the parents and caretakers’ end is important while the child is picking up speech and language skills. “Speaking requires coordination between the brain and mouth, which takes time to develop. If we speak to the child in a fast-paced manner and expect the child to match up, they may end up stammering in the attempt,” says Dr Goenka.
Poovayya notes that addressing stuttering in children in a matter-of-fact manner, without associating shame or stigma, is paramount. Parents should modify their speech and behavioral patterns and talk to the child at a slower pace. “Parents should be patient and give kids space to process and complete sentences, even if they are stammering. Parents must refrain from completing it for them,” points out Dr Goenka.
- Stuttering or stammering is a speech disorder where a person experiences repetitions, prolongations and blocks while speaking.
- Stuttering can be of two types: developmental stuttering, which occurs when kids are acquiring speech and language skills and acquired or neurogenic stuttering, which can occur due to a head injury, stroke or other neurological causes.
- Interventions like speech therapy and behavior therapy should be started at an early age because it’s easier to change or alter the neural connections in the brain during childhood.
- Parents should be patient while dealing with stuttering in their children. It’s crucial for them to modify their speech patterns and talk to the child at a slower pace.