If a child often stops in the middle of a sentence and repeats individual sounds or syllables, this does not inevitably mean that the child is a stutterer. A lot of repetitions, pauses or fillers are thus not necessarily a reason for panicking. Professor Goetz Schade, who is the head of the Phoniatrics and Paedaudology Section of Bonn's University Clinic, warns parents against over-reacting.
In Germany about five per cent of all children stutter. In well over half of those affected stuttering stops by puberty. 'Parents should not over-react if their children show such symptoms between ages three and five,' explains Professor Schade, who is an expert on voice, language, speech, swallowing and children's auditory defects, since the wrong reactions in their immediate environment can ultimately lead to the situation becoming more acute. If a child often gets stuck in mid-sentence – 'And then… then… then…' – experts refer to a 'lack of functional fluency'. This occurs in very many children as part of their normal linguistic development, lasting up to six months, and does not necessarily mean that a child stutters. The decisive difference between this and 'real' stuttering occurs, among other factors, with the accompanying symptoms connected with speaking, as stutterers frequently react to the impairment of their language flow with behaviour patterns where they attempt to fight against or avoid their disability. One sign of the effort involved when they try to express themselves is that their speech, for example, is accompanied by grimaces or movements of the arms or head. Furthermore, stutterers in general avoid situations in which they have to speak.
Parents whose child often falters when speaking and makes long pauses should not put the child under pressure by exhorting him or her to speak slowly, for example. Children, who are basically keen on talking, are thereby made aware of the problem. As a result of this awareness of an abnormality they become increasingly afraid of speaking. For this reason Professor Schade warns against panicking: 'Parents should allow their children to speak in their own good time and not put pressure on them. It is important that children do not get the feeling that they have a problem.'
If a child is no longer keen to speak and lack of fluency in speech, accompanied by attempts to fight against this or to avoid speaking, is characteristic of the child's language, the parents should definitely seek assistance. In the Phoniatrics and Paedaudiology Section of Bonn's ENT Clinic Professor Schade and the speech therapist Hanna Engelmann decide which therapy to initiate. 'Parents who are uncertain whether their child's linguistic problems are initial symptoms of stuttering can of course also come to us,' Professor Schade emphasises.
By means of the appropriate therapy the children affected learn by playing to cope better with stuttering in a specific situation. What is important in this is to deal openly with stuttering and the negative emotional situation thereby arising. Fear and shame, particularly, often lead to a vicious circle among stutterers. The aim of the therapy is to break this vicious circle. 'The children affected should learn to cope with their lack of fluency without fear. Positive experience during therapy, relaxed parents, a gradual reduction in fear and more self-confidence then lead to more fluent speech,' the speech therapist Hanna Engelmann adds.
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