When Stammering Occurs

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 are stammerers. 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;77:1271–1276). 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

Putting thoughts into words and then organizing speech so that the words flow well is a very complex task for the human brain. It is amazing that we do not all stammer. No one understands why stammering occurs, but a lot of research is being done to find out. It used to be thought that stress and negative experiences were the cause, but it has now been discovered that your genes have a big effect on stammering.

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

There are various ways in which you can help yourself. The British Stammering Association suggests the following approach:

Define the problem. What do you actually do when you stammer?

  • 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?

You also need to consider what you feel about your stammer.

  • 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.

Do not try to hide your stammer. You have probably adopted some ‘avoidance behaviours’ to hide or avoid your stammer. The problem is that the more you avoid, the more you need to go on avoiding. If you are avoiding very successfully, you may be thought to be fluent by workmates, partner and friends, but you have to be constantly vigilant to maintain this fluency. Your stammer does not improve or go away because you hide it.

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.

Be aware of degrees of fluency. You may think there are only two possibilities – either you stammer or you are fluent. Watch and listen carefully when people are speaking on buses, on radio phone-ins, at home and in shops. Is everyone as fluent, concise and articulate as you imagined? You may discover that many apparently fluent speakers are, in fact, quite hesitant when speaking, and that there is not such a clear division between speaking fluently and stammering. You may then begin to accept that you do not have to be fluent all the time.

Treatment Options

Speech therapy. You should get the help of a speech and language therapist, preferably one who specializes in the treatment of stammering. Your doctor can refer you, or you can get in touch with a therapist yourself. The therapy may be on an individual basis or may be in a group. If you have already had speech therapy and feel that you were not helped, try again because therapy may have changed, and you may have changed.

Echo earpiece. Some stammerers find they can sing along with others, and that their stammer is not as bad when they are with a lot of people all talking together in the same room. To reproduce this effect, an earpiece has been developed that sends out an echo of the user’s voice. It helps to ‘unblock’ the impediment to speech. According to the British Stammering Association, it helps some people but not all.

Don’t hope for medication to cure the problem. Various studies have shown that drug treatment does not truly help.

If You Are a Parent and Your Child Stammers

Stammering is quite common in the pre-school years. Although three out of four children will grow out of it, many authorities think that pre-schoolers who stutter should be treated. Therefore, it is worth discussing the problem with your doctor. The British Stammering Association has a useful page on its website called ‘Stammering in preschool children – how parents can help’. If your child is of school age, you could tell his/her teachers about the special sections for teachers on the website of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.

It is important to provide an environment that encourages slow speech, allowing the child time to talk, because slow and relaxed speech can help reduce stammering. Gentle, non-judgemental acknowledgement of stammering may comfort a frustrated child, such as saying “That was bumpy” or “That was smooth” (American Family Physician 2008;77:1271–1276). Here are 7 tips for talking with your child from the Stuttering Foundation.

  1. 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.”
  2. Reduce the number of questions you ask your child. Instead of asking questions, simply comment on what your child has said.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Fascinating Facts

  • More men than women 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


First published on: embarrassingproblems.com
Reviewed and edited by: Dr Anna Cantlay
Last updated: October 2020

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