25th September 2020
When Rick Arenas was a boy, his family didn't talk about his stammer. But when his own son came to him for advice for living with stammering, he decided he didn't want to take the same approach, in this article first published by the Stuttering Foundation in the US.
As parents, we want the best for our children. We hope and pray that things will go well for them in all areas of their life. This deep desire for our children's well-being often results in parents feeling guilt, confusion and inadequacy regarding how to handle things that we deem potentially harmful or unpleasant. For many parents, stuttering falls in this category. As a person who stutters with a child who stutters, I fully understand why it is often viewed in this way.
For many years, my stuttering (or at least my reaction to stuttering) had a negative impact on my quality of life. It was the dominate theme that influenced my decisions and how I viewed myself. Like many in my generation, stuttering was not talked about in my family; I was left to come up with my own explanations and ways of viewing it. When stuttering is not discussed openly, children tend to internalise that it is something so bad and taboo that it should be avoided at all costs (at least, this was my experience).
When my own children began to stutter, I experienced strong feelings of guilt and worry. This made it clear that my views of stuttering and parenting required much more of an evolution.
My perspective about stuttering slowly began to change almost twenty years ago when I decided to go back to school to study speech pathology (speech therapy), specialising in the area of stuttering. My evolving views had much less to do with my growing academic knowledge of stuttering and more to do with getting to know other people who stutter, observing how they have learned to thrive. Several years ago when my own children began to stutter, I experienced strong feelings of guilt and worry. This made it clear that my views of stuttering and parenting required much more of an evolution.
I kept thinking about the challenges that I had with stuttering growing up; I did not want my children to have to deal with those same issues. Over time and after much reflection, I concluded that the best thing I can do as a parent is to provide support and foster a healthy view of stuttering. I know I cannot take away the painful parts of my child's life. Pain is inevitable: eventually we all experience health issues, rejection, death of loved ones. In the case of people who stutter, they will stutter at times when they strongly desire to express themselves fluently.
I concluded that the best thing I can do as a parent is to provide support and foster a healthy view of stuttering.
The suffering we experience from painful events is directly related to how we view and relate to those events. Parents have an enormous amount of influence on the development of a child's world view. If we want the best for our children, it's perhaps wise to focus less on trying to eliminate the pain they may experience and focus more on equipping them to effectively deal with the inevitable challenges.
It was from this lens that I wrote down nine pieces of advice for my son when he earnestly asked me what he can do about stuttering (after a particularly challenging day with his fluency at school). I tried to convey the things that have helped me the most and that I wish I would have heard when I was his age. When I gave it to him it was quite an emotional moment for both of us. It's not that we hadn't talked about stuttering before that moment, but the explicit nature of the list allowed us to more easily discuss how and in what ways stuttering was impacting him. I talked more than I had before about how stuttering has helped me to grow. The degree of openness and connection that we had in that moment is something I will never forget and will always cherish.
The degree of openness and connection that we had in that moment is something I will never forget and will always cherish.
This advice is certainly not all encompassing, I'm sure there are several more nuggets of wisdom that could be added. Also, it is not original. Most of it is rather universal and could be easily adapted to apply to any type of challenging difference or impairment. My hope is that this article and the list of advice may serve to foster open and honest communication between parents and their children who stutter. I am convinced that talking about stuttering is the single most important thing that a parent can do for their child.
- Stuttering is OK. There is nothing wrong with stuttering and there is nothing wrong with you. Everybody is different and we all have our own unique challenges. Some people just have a hard time with forward flowing speech.
- Do not let stuttering stop you from what you want to do. Stuttering is likely to happen more in some situations, but don't avoid situations because stuttering may occur more often. Avoiding situations, or not saying what you want to say, because of stuttering is not a good way to live your life.
- You may not have control over when stuttering occurs, but you do have control over how you respond to it. There are ways that you can make stuttering easier. Struggling, tensing and pushing out words is not as helpful as easily and gently moving forward through a moment of stuttering. You can learn and practice tools for making speech easier. But, it's up to you whether you want to use them and it's important to not get too frustrated when they are not as effective in some situations.
- Be open and honest about stuttering with other people. It is best to let people know that you occasionally stutter. Being open and OK with stuttering will make other people understand and they will be OK with it as well.
- Never apologise for stuttering. If you're having a bit of a hard time saying what you want to say and it's taking longer than you would like, you don't have to apologise to other people. Instead, simply say "I stutter, so you need to be patient while I finish saying what I'm saying".
- Accept that stuttering is highly variable. Don't beat yourself up when some situations are harder than others. It's good to be aware of the variability of stuttering so that you can maybe use some types of strategies if you want to communicate more easily in tougher situations. But, don't get mad at yourself and feel guilty about it because that is just the nature of stuttering.
- Stuttering has nothing to do with you as a person, your intelligence or your character. Stuttering is a neurological issue with speech production. It's not a psychological issue and it's not your fault.
- Know that you are not alone. There are millions of people who stutter and many of them have been extremely successful across a wide variety of professions, many of which require a great deal of speaking. Connecting with other people who stutter through support groups is a very helpful way to see how successful people who stutter can be in all areas of their life.
- Speaking is about communication, not about fluency. Communication involves sharing your thoughts, feelings and beliefs. You can be a great communicator even if your speech does not always flow in an easy way. What you have to say is very important; it should be expressed no matter how fluently it comes out.
Rick Arenas is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. He is passionate about teaching future clinicians about stuttering and conducting research about the contextual variability of stuttering.
This article was taken from the Winter 2019 edition of the Stuttering Foundation's magazine and published with their, and the author's consent.