How can I tell whether my toddler has a serious case of stuttering or stammering, or whether it’s just a normal part of speech development when he has difficulty getting his words out?
There is a “normal stuttering” which is very common in children between the ages of two and six. This behavior is actually the result of mental over‐processing. In other words, the child’s brain is racing ahead of his ability to express himself verbally. This stuttering, which can be aggravated by anxiety, excitement, self‐consciousness or fatigue, is called “normal disfluency.” That’s why creating a peaceful, safe home environment is found to be one of the essential building blocks of healthy child development (Asset #10: Safety). Episodes last usually no more than a few seconds and decrease in frequency as the child gets older. When these occur, parents can help the child relax by calmly repeating or narrating for the child what he or she is attempting to say. Such difficulties in communication usually disappear on their own as the child grows and matures developmentally.
There are some secondary mannerisms that are generally seen in children who are dealing with pathological stuttering rather than normal dysfluency. These include: the child struggling noticeably to get the words out; obvious tension and frustration in the child while trying to get the phrase or word spoken; increasing vocal tension resulting in rising pitch or loudness; or very long prolongation (several seconds) of the syllables. There is also cause for concern if the child still stutters while in a calm and relaxed state. In that case, the problem may have neurological rather than merely emotional roots.
If any of these secondary signs are present, or if you have the feeling that something is not right with the way your child is speaking after the two‐year mark, it would be a good idea to consult with your pediatrician. If he or she agrees there is cause for concern, have the child evaluated by a speech pathologist. Many schools, school districts, state agencies and organizations like the Community Partnership for Child Development offer free evaluation services. Working with other parents to partner with teachers and administrators will go a long way to helping create a caring school climate (Asset #5) which can help your child feel better about seeking help from one of these professionals. Some educational psychologists are also in a position to act as your child’s advocate, and will go to bat for you with the local district. Your job will be to find out exactly what help is available and where to go in order to get him the best instruction and therapy based on his needs.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. Take steps to get the help you need, but don’t increase the child’s feelings of self‐consciousness by spotlighting the issue unnecessarily. Remember that even at the later stages of development it is a tricky business to distinguish between normal and pathological behavior, and that it’s never safe to issue blanket statements. Experts in the field prefer to assess each case on an individual basis since new information is constantly coming to light and there are many exceptions to the rules.