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How Stuttering Affects Children Socially and Where to Seek Help

By Dr Lisa Iverach*

453
Children as young as four years of age can experience social exclusion as a result of their stuttering. These negative social experiences can intensify in the school years, with children who stutter reporting regular bullying and teasing. Children who stutter may also be rated as less popular than their non-stuttering class mates. Yet stuttering is not an insurmountable roadblock for children on their path to fulfilling lives.

What is Stuttering?
Stuttering is a speech disorder characterised by interruptions to speech, such as repeating sounds or words, hesitating, or prolonging sounds. The disorder affects approximately five per cent of Australians, and usually develops in early childhood when children are first learning to create sentences. It is thought to be caused by problems with neural processing underlying speech production, and has a genetic basis. While some children recover naturally from stuttering, the disorder can persist for others.

Despite what some people think, the disorder is not caused by anxiety or psychological difficulties. Instead, stuttering has the potential to result in feelings of shyness, anxiety, and embarrassment when communicating with others.

Stuttering and Teasing
When my stuttering child was seven he said after a day at school: ‘Some kids were teasing me about my bad speaking. They said I can't speak properly'.” This experience, reported by the mother of a boy who stutters, is not uncommon.

It broke my heart to think that he was made so aware of his speech problems. I've always taught his older brothers not to tease him about his stuttering but, sadly, it is unavoidable in the heat of kid's fighting. It was bad enough having kids teasing him at school, but it was worse when he got home and his brothers teased him as well.

Numerous studies have shown that more than fifty per cent of children who stutter report being teased or bullied on a regular basis, with some estimates much higher than that. Children who stutter are also more likely to be categorised as ‘bully victims’ than their non-stuttering class mates.

Stuttering and Anxiety
As a result of the negative social experiences associated with stuttering, children who stutter can develop social, or speech-related, anxiety. This not only includes excessive fear of speaking situations, but also avoidance of social engagement. Some children who stutter might not even be noticed in the classroom, with the child simply appearing shy and quiet. Others might learn to avoid difficult words or opportunities to speak, instead using gestures and short sentences to communicate. For these children, simple classroom tasks such as reading out loud, presenting news, or asking the teacher a question, can be the source of anxiety, fear, and embarrassment. Fear and avoidance of speaking situations can have significant implications for social, educational, and occupational functioning later in life.

There is Hope – and Help!
Despite the negative social impact of stuttering, there are many indications that stuttering does not have to interfere with overall life functioning. Many Australians witnessed singer Harrison Craig’s inspirational story, as he overcame his stuttering and went on to win Australia’s most popular singing competition, The Voice, in 2013. There are many other cases of people who have achieved success in the presence of stuttering, including award-winning actress Emily Blunt, actress and singer Marilyn Monroe, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Further Information