We’ve all stumbled over our words from time to time, especially when we’re nervous. However, for some people, voicing thoughts out loud can be an exhausting daily struggle. People who stammer have great difficulty in speaking smoothly, and in severe cases it can be almost impossible for them to make themselves understood. Overall, 5% of children stammer at some point. Most grow out of it as they get older, but a quarter of these children never outgrow their stutter. Over half of stammering cases are due to hereditary factors, but sometimes childhood development delays or issues with speech and language can cause stammering. This speech issue can also have a neurological cause, or ca be triggered by family traits like rapid speaking.
Many famous people—including Winston Churchill, King George VI, Carly Simon and Emily Blunt—have had problems with stammering, which shows that it doesn’t have to blight your life. So, how can you support someone who stammers?
1. Don’t show embarrassment
Stutterers need time and a relaxed atmosphere to speak, so don’t be embarrassed if you have to wait while they get their words out. If others around you make unkind comments or stare, either ignore them or gently explain the problem so that the person who is stammering doesn’t feel misunderstood.
2. Look beyond the stutter
Just because someone can’t express themselves clearly at first doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent or don’t have important ideas to share. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that someone who stutters can’t actually express themselves in detail—they simply need time and space to do it effectively.
3. Be open about the problem
This tip is especially important if you have a child who stammers. Avoid pretending the problem doesn’t exist, but be open and matter-of-fact about the issue without dwelling on it unnecessarily. If you try to sweep things under the carpet, your child might feel isolated, but constantly harping on about it will make it seem bigger than it needs to be—which could even make the problem worse.
4. Understand their nervousness, but don’t reinforce it
Acknowledge they have a difficulty and remind them of helpful strategies, but don’t be so over-protective that you imply they can’t cope with their stammer. Encourage them to do as much as possible for themselves, but offer help if you truly feel they need it (such as by making an initial phone call before handing the phone over to them).
5. Speak slowly and clearly
Stammering is often made worse by nervousness, so help by exuding an air of calm yourself. Relax and slow down when you’re talking—this will keep the atmosphere placid, encouraging calmness and also providing a clear speech model for children. This strategy can be hard in the hurly burly of everyday life, but try to stick to it as much as possible.
6. Be prepared to wait
When you see someone struggling to articulate their words, it’s very tempting to rush in to help by offering suggestions or finishing sentences. But imagine how frustrated you’d be if you never got a chance to finish what you’re saying! School yourself to wait patiently until they’ve finished, staying relaxed and not looking impatient—this will help them to relax too.
7. Don’t offer advice
Small kids may need a gentle reminder about helpful strategies, but older kids and adults will hate being told to “slow down” or “think what [they’re] saying first.” However frustrating it seems, try to wait patiently and let them find their own way to master their problem. Kids will really benefit in the long run, as it will help them manage social situations on their own, and adults with a stammer won’t feel they’re being treated like a child.
8. Listen to the message not the speaker
It’s easy for your mind to wander while you’re waiting for a stutterer to finish what they have to say, but there’s nothing more frustrating for them than having to repeat something that they struggled to say the first time. Maintaining natural eye contact without staring will help, but always focus on the message whilst they’re speaking as well.
9. Ask how to help
Lastly, if you don’t know the person who is speaking, ask if there’s a way you can help them. They’ll appreciate being asked rather than told, and you’ll then know the best way to help without looking condescending.