I've got a 3-year-old son who stutters moderately severely. The speech therapist has told me it's related to anxiety. She's also recommended that we pay no attention to the stuttering, and don't talk to him about it. I'm not sure if not talking about it makes sense, but I am going with her opinion for now because she's got more experience here than I do. Do you have ideas for helping my son?
I agree that stuttering is an outward sign that there’s some chunk of fear caught inside a
child. It doesn’t matter where that fear came from. And it’s good that it’s creating this visible sign—you have evidence that feelings need to be lifted, and therefore, you can help. Hand in Hand’s Listening Tools will help you make it safe enough for him to show you his feelings, and as he shows you, in crying, tantrums, sweaty struggling, or laughter, the emotional tension will release. After he has released some of this fear, his mind won’t run so much faster than his speech.
Here's what I would do, to try to loosen the fears that might be gumming things up for him right now. I'll be very interested to hear from others, as well!
Special Time Builds Safety
1) Give him regular Special Time. This means setting aside from 5 to 30 minutes, letting him know when it will be so he can anticipate it, and offering your full attention and warmth while he chooses what to do. You need give this time a name, and set a timer, so there’s a distinct beginning and end, and so if he likes it, he can ask for it again. Don’t worry about what he chooses to do, just pour your warmth and interest, so you’re offering full connection the whole time. If he wants to play Candy Land, for instance, you give him all the choices—the color of his game piece, the choice to go first, etc. If he wants to play by his own rules, fine. If he cheats, you can put up a playful protest, but he gets to win. You give as much eye contact as you can, and as much affectionate touch, as well. This gives children the direct promise and feel of our attention, and it helps them to notice when they don’t feel safe or happy, and to bring those feelings up to us more frequently. For instance, many children have some kind of an upset at the end of Special Time, or shortly thereafter, because your attention has made it safe to show what’s going on inside.
I would suggest doing Special Time daily, to build his sense of safety. The time doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be just for him—no multitasking, no conversations with other members of the family during Special Time. There’s more information on Special Time and the other Listening Tools I briefly describe here in the Listening to Children booklet set.
Help Him Take on the Powerful Role
2) Initiate lots of physical play and physical contact, and notice what lets him laugh. Then, keep playing to promote hearty laughter. Tickling is off limits though, because it tends to be too heavily governed by the grown-up. You want to promote what I call Playlistening, in which your son gets to laugh because he has the more powerful role. Hide and seek in which you paw all over him but can’t seem to find him; pillow play in which he gets to bowl you over with the pillows he tosses; “I've got some kisses for you!,” play, where you try to catch him and land only one or two of the hundred kisses you want to give him before he wriggles away; horsey rides, in which you try to buck him off, and he is a remarkably clingy rider. To help children heal from fear, the play needs to be freeform and not totally predictable. It also needs to involve lots of affectionate but not totally careful bodily contact. And he wins in the end, though you put up a persistent effort.
Children's laughter during unpredictable play allows them to release the lighter side of fears about survival issues. Every time they “survive” another unexpected bump or jump or jostle, off comes the fear, in laughter. This kind of play is just great for loosening up the fears a child might harbor. If he gets hurt in the play, he is giving you as an opportunity to bring him into your arms, hold him, and Staylisten to the full expression of his tears or anger. The feelings he sheds will be about the bump or knock for the first few minutes. Then, if he continues to cry or struggle against you, you can assume that he’s shifted to working on the stored feelings that now connect that little bump to a deeper emotional issue. The depth comes from whatever it was that initially frightened him, and you holding him and telling him that you are sorry it’s hard, but will stay with him till he feels better, will help him access and relieve the feelings that tighten him up when he tries to express himself.
Crying Resolves Upsets
3) Listen well any other time he begins to cry. Often, children who stutter have many other sensitivities–they don't like transitions, or are picky eaters, or want their sandwiches made just so, or can't stand a drop of water on their clothing. These little quirks are doors that open a good release of stored feelings, if you don't try to fix the situation, even though it would be so easy to do so. Listen. Let him panic fully because of the little thing that upsets him, the detail that feels like it must be fixed right now. We call this Staylistening, and it’s a powerful way to lend your confidence that all is actually well to a child who feels that his life is completely unacceptable at the moment.
You Need Support Too!
4) When he stutters, the speech therapist has the right idea. Just pay relaxed attention when he stutters until he can say what he wants to say. It’s what you would do if a friend were talking to you and had to cough or sneeze. You would wait, unworried, until they could continue. Don't help him. Instead, find an adult listener for yourself and tell that person all your worries! If you can let a caring supporter know how his stuttering affects you, you’ll be better able to relax and confidently await his words.
The stuttering is a symptom of fears that you’ll use Listening Tools to help him with. His fears are the real issue, and his stuttering is just a little bookmark to tell you that there’s more to this chapter, before it’s done.
Model Making Mistakes
5) Look for ways to elicit laughter around making mistakes, and doing things badly. When you’re talking to him, say words wrong our out of order, or mispronounce them. Don’t stutter (that’s too direct), but make other silly goof-ups. When you read books he knows well, substitute silly words for key words in the story. Then catch yourself, and be amazed, “Why did I say “The dog went foam? Foam? Foam? I wanted to say strome. Oh, no, I wanted to say klome. Oh, darn, I mean home!” See if this is funny to him, and if so, make it a frequent game. It's Playlistening–you taking on the less powerful role again. You can make mistakes in other ways, too. Put your spoon of peas to your nose at the dinner table instead of your mouth, for instance. You get the idea.
6) If these steps go well, he'll eventually have some big fighting, crying, struggling, sweating emotional episodes. Or he might decide to work on his fears through scary dreams in the night. Or to cry mightily about the limits you set on the little things he wants you to do to make things more predictable and controllable. Staylistening through his upsets will help to unsnarl his speech.
Two months later, this mother wrote us to report on their progress.
I'd like to fill you in on the good changes. I don't know if I can attribute them all to using your advice, because he’s been seeing a speech therapist, too, but something shifted for sure.
As suggested, I started to make purposeful mistakes when reading to him, and he laughed and laughed and would ask me to make more “jokes.” Over and over again. I also clowned around a lot more in general, playing the role of mistake-maker and incompetent nincompoop, getting hearty belly laughs from him, and requests to do it again. Within a few weeks, his stutter subsided to a very occasional event, often with hours going by without any sign of it. This is miraculous, since at the time of writing he was at a short-lived but shocking height of stuttering nearly every other word he spoke, and has been stuttering for at least a year and a half at a much lower level of once or twice every sentence or two.
I'm very thankful for your confident and right-on suggestions. Thank you!