If I Could Go Back In Time: A Parent's Reflections

If I Could Go Back In Time: A Parent's Reflections

Dori Holte shares her regrets about making fluency the goal when her son started stammering, and describes what she would have done differently.

Our children are young adults now and as with most parents, we wish we had the chance to go back and do certain things differently, especially how we responded to our youngest son’s stammer. Hopefully we would do a far better job keeping our eye on the prize – raising a happy, productive, engaged human being, rather than a person who did not stammer. 

Eli, who is now 23, is doing well. He leads a productive life, has great friends, is pursuing his passion (space exploration), and is a good and compassionate person. And yes, he still stammers. 

Therapy for fluency

When Eli was nine, the outlook was not as bright. After six years of speech therapy focused on eliminating or minimising his stammer, it was easier for him to just not talk. Even though he was told (often) it was okay to stammer, countless therapy sessions where he was praised for successfully using his speech tools, and daily ‘special time’ spent practising these tools, only led him to believe that stammering was not okay and we’d prefer that he stopped.  

The therapy our son received until he was nine “sucked all the fun right out of talking.” Those were the words of Eli's last speech therapist and the first words that really made sense to us. Over the next ten years, this therapist guided us through the process of finding ways to make talking fun and to rebuild his connection with the world around him. It worked – today he’s our extrovert, stammer and all!

Our desperate quest for fluent speech took precious resources away from focusing on areas far more important to a child’s well-being. It’s hard to see that when your 2-½-year-old is struggling to talk and you are imagining a lifetime of struggle. It’s hard not to chase a fix when you’re led to believe that the chase is worth it and the payoff is most likely fluency. 

Our desperate quest for fluent speech took precious resources away from focusing on areas far more important to a child’s well-being.

For us the payoff was silence and withdrawal. Eli was one of the approximately 20% of children who would continue to struggle with a stammer beyond pre-school age. We will never know what impact his early therapy had on his continued struggle, but in addition to diminished communication, his tension and physical struggle whilst talking increased dramatically. Now, he grimaced, turned his chin to his shoulder and growled in order to get a word out. Oh, to go back to the days of a simple block!  

Dori's son Eli
Dori's son Eli

Panic over 'the window'

When Eli was five, we were told that the 'window' for 'fixing' him was closing. This window refers to a period in a child’s life where the brain is extremely malleable and speech therapy focused directly on stopping the stammer is believed to have an increased chance of success. I’ll never forget the panic I felt when I heard this. I was consumed with a sense of urgency to practise using speech tools and to make the most of whatever crack was left in the window opening. 

Parents are still given this message today. This 'window' is completely unfounded, as no brain research has been done to support this conclusion. Yet parents continue to be thrown into a panic mode, creating harmful anxiety and an unhelpful sense of urgency that runs the risk of doing more harm than good. 

What we'd do differently

There are many things that parents can do to have a positive impact on the malleable little brains that don’t carry a risk of increased anxiety and shame around communication – activities that nurture joyful communication and connection. Sing songs, read to them, learn nursery rhymes that you can repeat in unison, let them take the lead in play and work, let them be imperfect – model that yourself. Dance badly, goof up your words.

The list can go on and on, but if we had it to do over again, here’s where we would start:  

  • We would do our homework (in my defence, we didn’t have the internet at our fingertips in the olden days). I now understand that when it comes to treating children who stammer, 'speech therapy' and 'early intervention' are generic terms that can mean many different things and include strategies that are often contradictory: ignore it, talk about it, think about what you’re going to say before you say it, don’t think about it at all, praise fluency, fluency doesn’t matter, sing, don’t sing, etc. As one leader in the field said, "It’s the wild west out there." 
  • We would set aside the goal of fluency. Yes, we all want that for our children but had we known our son’s stammer would persist, there is no way we would have even started down that road. And it’s the children who persist that we need to be concerned with. Having fluency as the goal can develop baggage that contributes to life-long challenges that far exceed the stammer itself. 
  • We would focus instead on the really important stuff – resiliency, confidence, minimising shame, always letting him know that we love him the way he is. 

My recommended resources

There are so many wonderful resources out there that I wish we had been reading instead of focusing on fluency. Here are a few book suggestions:

  • The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, Brene Brown
  • Raising Resilient Children, Robert Brooks PhD, Sam Goldstein, PhD
  • The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine N. Aron
  • Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Stuart Brown
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and to Listen so Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • The Simple Guide to Understanding Shame in Children, Betsy de Thierry. 

Resources are endless in today’s world. Find some that will keep the fun and joy in your child’s worldly connections. Nothing could be more important. 

If you are a BSA member, you can borrow Dori’s book, Voice Unearthed: Hope, Help, and a Wake-Up Call for the Parents of Children Who Stutter, from our library. Find out more here.

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