Stammering (stuttering) usually starts in childhood – between the ages of 3 and 5 – but most children grow out of it without any special treatment. About one in a hundred adults stammers. About 80% of adult stammerers are men.
Stammering can be very upsetting. In a study of more than 200 adults who stammer, more than 70% believed that their speech problem adversely affected their chance of being hired or promoted, more than 33% thought it interfered with job performance, and 20% had declined a job or promotion because of stammering (American Family Physician 2008;77:1271–6). While stammering, people often blink their eyes or jerk their jaw or move their head without meaning to, which perhaps makes it more embarrassing.
Why stammering occurs
Stammering seldom occurs when a single word is being spoken or read, but it usually occurs at the beginning of a sentence or idea. Different parts of the brain deal with language processing and the formation of speech, and scientists are looking at the coordination between these processes. One study suggests that, in stammerers, speech formation jumps the gun before the language processing has been completed. Other researchers are looking at the roles of chemicals in the brain that transmit messages between brain cells.
How to help yourself
- Do you repeat sounds (s...s...s...supper) or syllables (su...su...su...supper)?
- Do you prolong sounds (sssssssupper)?
- Do you get blocked in speech so that you are unable to make any sound (s...upper)?
- Do you close your eyes or rush through speech?
- Do you try to avoid the word by changing it for another that is easier to say?
- Do you give up speaking altogether?
- Do you think it is severe or quite mild?
- Do you think it is holding you back in your social life or at work?
- Is it better in some situations and with some people?
- How do you feel when you stammer: embarrassed? annoyed? frustrated?
- Do you get angry with other people, with yourself, or both?
Tackle the problem piece by piece. Having analysed your stammer, tackle it one element at a time, starting with something you feel you might be able to change. For example, you might take one sentence of your speech two or three times a day and make a special effort to say that sentence slowly and calmly. Do not allow yourself to rush or panic; when speaking more slowly, most people stammer less. Or perhaps you might try to concentrate on not looking away from people, or not closing your eyes when you stammer.
Try to reduce the number of times that you avoid saying a particular word or talking to a particular person or speaking in a particular situation. As well as experimenting with stammering more openly, you may find it useful to try to talk about your stammer to one or two people who are close to you. You will start to learn that people are not as critical as you thought.
If you are a parent and your child stammers
- Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes speaking before you begin to speak. Your own slow, relaxed speech will be far more effective than any criticism or advice such as “slow down” or “try it again slowly.”
- Reduce the number of questions you ask your child. Instead of asking questions, simply comment on what your child has said.
- Use your facial expressions and other body language to convey to your child that you are listening to the content of his/her message and not to how he or she is talking.
- Set aside a few minutes at a regular time each day when you can give your undivided attention to your child. This quiet, calm time can be a confidence-builder for younger children.
- Help all members of the family learn to take turns talking and listening. Children, especially those who stutter, find it much easier to talk when there are few interruptions.
- Observe the way you interact with your child. Try to increase those times that give your child the message that you are listening, and there is plenty of time to talk.
- Above all, convey that you accept your child as he/she is. The most powerful force will be your support, whether he/she stutters or not.
Helping a stammerer
- Do not give unhelpful advice, such as ‘slow down’ or ‘take a deep breath’. Just accept that the person stammers.
- Do be patient and maintain eye contact with the stammerer when he or she speaks.
- Do not interrupt or finish words or sentences for the stammerer. This is frustrating for the stammerer and you may guess wrongly.
- Concentrate on what is being said, rather than how it is being said.
Some of the information in this section is taken from a leaflet called The Adult Who Stammers published by the British Stammering Association.
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Wednesday, June 10th 2015
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More men than women stammer
There is a 20% greater chance of you stammering if a close relative has a stammer
There is no difference between stammering and stuttering; they are two words with the same meaning
People who stammer can usually whisper and sing without stammering, like Pop Idol Gareth Gates
Famous stammerers include Moses, Aristotle, Aesop, Virgil, King Charles I, Charles Darwin, Marilyn Monroe and Napoleon