As toddlers and preschoolers begin to expand their language, they may go through a typical language development phase where they start talking quickly or stumble over their words. It’s common for preschoolers to exhibit these normal disfluencies (e.g., repeated words or phrases), especially when they are excited or tired, and this typically goes away on its own within 6 months. But if your child is exhibiting specific behaviors and showing any tension or struggle when talking, they may be showing signs of stuttering. Speech behaviors that are indicative of stuttering include sound or word repetitions, prolongations (holding out a sound for a few seconds or more), and blocks (physical tension building up before releasing a sound). Here are some examples of speech behaviors that are typically seen in preschoolers, and which ones you should monitor as red flags for stuttering.
Things to monitor:
Using filler words like “um” or “uh”
Elongating single sounds (e.g., “I waaaana go to the park!”)
Repeating phrases (e.g., “I wanna go- I wanna go to the park!”)
Repeating sounds or words (e.g., “I w-w-wanna go to the park!” or, “I wanna go-go-go to the park!”)
No physical tension while speaking
Facial grimacing or tightening of muscles when talking
What is stuttering?
While there is no one cause of stuttering, most researchers agree that it is likely caused by multiple factors. Some known risk factors include a family history of stuttering, sex (i.e., boys outnumber girls 4:1 in terms of likelihood to develop stuttering), age of onset (i.e., beginning to stutter at 4 years old or older is more likely to lead to persistent stuttering), and co-existing language or speech difficulties. What we do know is that stuttering is never a parent’s fault and it can be managed in therapy! Stuttering is completely out of a child’s control and is understandably frustrating and confusing to experience. If you think your child is stuttering, seek an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist. If therapy is recommended, beginning treatment right away gives your child the best chance to start learning strategies to smooth out their speech and feel good about talking.
In addition to starting speech therapy, here are some suggestions for how to help your child with their speech at home:
Create a low-pressure environment
Use a slow speaking rate, and make sure there’s no competition to speak. If you have other children, ask for their help too! Every family member should model slow, easy speech, and take their turn talking, without interrupting one another.
Make sure not to add any pressure by saying things like, “come on,” or “get it out.” Stuttering is not in your child’s control, and they are likely even more frustrated by their difficulties than you are! So be patient, don’t finish their sentences for them, and wait it out.
Give positive praise
Kids who stutter are more likely to have lower self-confidence around speaking at some point since it is so difficult for them. We want to be sure to build their confidence and keep them encouraged, so be sure to provide lots of verbal praise, even when it’s not related to speaking. For example, notice things like, “I love how well you are listening!,” or “You are such a good helper. I love how kind you are.”
Give your child your full attention when they are talking. Get down to their level, make eye contact, and show them that what they have to say is valuable and that you are listening. This will support your child’s confidence and comfort while speaking and remind them that even though it can be hard, it will be rewarding to say what’s on their mind when someone is really listening.
Talk about stuttering directly
To help your child make sense of these feelings and create a positive speaking experience, try to be upfront and describe what they are going through. For example, you can say, “you had a hard time getting that word out, I’m proud of you for trying anyway,” or, “that sound got stuck in your mouth, I want to hear what you have to say so let’s try again,” etc. While this doesn’t immediately make talking easier for your child, it shows that it’s okay to accept when something is hard, and you will patiently listen to what they want to say.