The following article is reprinted by The Speak Easy Newsletter Winter, 1983. The content was originally a paper for parents, presented at Speak Easy's Symposium II by Gerald F. Johnson. Ph.D., and Maxine Johnson, M.S., is printed in its entirety from the newsletter. Dr. Johnson was a Professor the School of Communicative Disorders, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Maxine Johnson, a speech and language pathologist in the Stevens Point public schools. JAK

Signals: For Parents of Children Who Stutter

by Gerald F. Johnson and Maxine Johnson

People live their lives in a signaling environment. Our senses are constantly being bombarded by signals which might be good, bad, or indifferent. Most of the time people do not consciously react or respond to these signals due to the saturation and experiential nature of our intake system - "You've been there before." Often this robotron nonreactive existence is insular to our having to react and interrelate to the overwhelming number of signals which occur each day.

We are selective in our respondent system to a point where, unfortunately, negative signals assume much of the stimulus value and become alerters to action. This paper attempts to identify some of these signals along with plans for analyses of these signals in order to react appropriately.

A. Stuttering is a Signal

Parents can use their child's stuttering to objectively analyze this signal. The analysis will include the child who stutters, other associates of the child and concurrent events. The child's associates and the precipitating events might not be present during the analysis period.

The analysis should consider the following points: (1) What occurred prior to, during, and after the stuttering episode? (2) Was the stuttering performance induced by the child him/herself? Was it initiated by another person or cooperatively with the child who stutters? An example of a cooperative performance would be a fight between brother, sister, or playmate. (3) How did persons react to the stuttering? Include nonverbal cues in the reactive process. Was the child's s' stuttering used as a weapon for the purpose of teasing or punishment? (4) Why did the stuttering occur? Was there a person/message/event triad? Does the child stutter more with a particular person; with a message (asking or answering questions, telling asking permission); or, in response to a particular event or environmental pressure? Is the time of day important because of reoccurring events at that time? Was the stuttering in response to a long term message calling for a negative event: "Wait till your father gets home!" Is the stuttering a self-induced reinforcing habit? Bloodstein states: "Stuttering is a child's conscientious effort to speak acceptably despite his conviction that he cannot do so" (Eisenson, II Symposium, p. 48). (5) Are there any other associated deficits such as language delay, misarticulations and unintelligibility, illness, mental and/or physical problems?

As parents analyze the various facets of the stuttering signal the stuttering itself becomes defused. Stuttering becomes demystified and becomes something for objective and rational action. This analysis period provides the parent with a brief time out - to collect one's thoughts and impressions. Of course not all of the events cited above will be present for each stuttering signal. But maybe there will be a trend toward a few events - a narrowing of behavior which is relatively consistent from signal[ to signal.

After the analyses there will be correspondent action which might include modifying and reorganizing the environment, events, and person associated with the child who stutters. Of course, stuttering modification and fluency enhancement (therapy) can be a part of this reorganization process. Whatever the cause(s) of stuttering we know that the propagation and maintenance of stuttering complicates the child's ability to cope with a " mouth that doesn't work right." Through analysis and modification parents can help their child through this phase

B. Disfluent Behavior (Other Than Stuttering) Is a Signal

Any behavior shown by the child which is momentarily unusual (or in some cases - usual!), such as negativism, temper tantrums, crying, kicking, biting, etc. can be analyzed in much the same way as for the stuttering signal. What are the cause/effect relationship? It is interesting to know that as we defuse these disfluent behavioral signals the child's stuttering responds correspondently and usually lessens in severity.

C. Parental Concern Is a Signal

How parents react and interrelate to disfluent signals is of utmost importance in the maintenance or elimination of these disfluencies. Adults are usually concerned about their performance in reacting to persons in their environment especially their child(ren). An important concept for behaviorally managing this concern is to layer personal performance into four levels.

Be consistent and insistent Communicate YOUR needs and feelings openly and objectively. Small behavioral management steps work the best-crawl, walk, run.

Another parental concern is: Does my child stutter? Parents are the best judge of that because they live with the child in his/her natural environment and they know what their child does. Don't let people tell you not to worry about receiving professional advice because the child will outgrow it. I wish I had a nickel for every parent of an older child who stutters who has been told that. Run, - don't walk, - to your nearest speech/ language professional for help and support. Early intervention is extremely important and helpful to the child and his/her associates.

D. Noncommunication Is a Signal

The conspiracy of silence and not admitting to a problem only deepens and complicates it. Talk to your child about stuttering and don't be afraid to use the word stuttering if it is appropriate to do so. No child ever became a stutterer because of the word. It is the reaction to stuttering which matters. Most children have been exposed to the word stuttering and use it freely to describe the event But maybe, the child has other words for what he does when he talks: " I get stuck, I bounce; I can't " talk smooth; I talk too fast." Use the child's s vocabulary about stuttering.

Do your helpful suggestions help? " Stop. Slow down. Go easy." If your child responds favorably by stuttering less due to your "speech correction" go ahead and use these comments at appropriate times. Talk to your child about doing this. Does your child mind your reminding him/her to do these things?

Nonverbal communication, where action speaks louder than words, might be the best method of communication. Children are the greatest imitators and maybe the best thing you can do is to slow down your own speech and make it easy. This slowing down might also include life-styles which are run a mile a minute. Time pressures tend to increase stuttering.

Participate in your child's treatment program. If you are not allowed in the therapy room, insist upon it. Be actively involved in the process. Also, talk to the clinician about cooperatively helping your child with the child present so as to help all concerned become active participants in the problem solving process. Remember, parents are the best bridge for the child from the treatment room to the natural environment

E. Imperfection Is a Signal

The feeling of imperfection in oneself or the observation of it in your child(ren) provokes guilt for not being perfect or not having done something right. This guilt leads to inhibition, withdrawal, and avoidant behavior. Stuttering is imperfect speech - there is nothing positive about stuttering. Guilt is often attached to this imperfection by parents who ask themselves what they did wrong. Parents tend to overcompensate or overindulge the child who stutters by teaching and preparing the child for the "challenges of life." Some parents are already worried about what their three-year-old will do at age 18.

Parental behavioral training of their children too often takes the form of inhibition - " stop, don't, no, keep away" - and that's why we don't need a cop on every street corner. The child's spontaneity becomes diminished over time, due to the parental effort to rid the child of his/her imperfect behavior and the child's corresponding attempt at conformity. Because children were trained through inhibition, adults make millionaires out of the " I'm OK, You're OK" people and we flock to hear the "Love Doctor" hug and kiss our inferiority away.

Leaper/creeper philosophy is important to understand in this context. Children who were given guided freedom and exploration throughout their lives with support from their parents become the reapers of our society. These uncontaminated and uninhibited people sometimes appear to be strange, weird, or different - and how most of us would like to have a little piece of their personal freedom. The creepers are those persons with imperfections which are identified by themselves or others. Of course, the acknowledgment of these imperfections create a striving for the perfection others wish upon them. The harder they try to please others the more obvious their imperfections become and the more miserable they become. There certainly is a vicious cycle here.

We believe there is a correspondence here between stuttering and imperfection in children. Children are imperfect because they are children. Please think of children in terms of fractions. For example, a child who is three years old is a 1/3 fraction. This means that the third year of that child's existence represents 1/3 of that child's total life. We can begin to appreciate how much impact that year has upon the totality of the child's functioning and perfection. One third also represents the infantile level of the three-year-old. How often have parents said to their three-year-old. "Stop acting like a baby." When in reality a three-year-old is a baby not far removed. This knowledge of childhood fractional performance allows parents to objectify and accept the imperfect stage(s) of a child's development.

Knowing that imperfections are normally present in us all; knowing that children should be perceived as fractions rather than wholes; knowing that reapers enjoy the freedom we all desire; leads us to understand the magnitude which imperfection can play in our lives.

F. 10 Commandments II* For Dealing With These Signals

Parents who have achieved some level of success with analyzing and modifying events in response to the signals which are present in their lives report personal gains - almost a quieting of personal emotion. The parent is happier, the associated persons are happier, and the negative signals diminish in intensity or are eliminated altogether. Even if you believe you do not have the ability to accomplish all that has been presented here you do have time on your side. All behavioral modification takes time to accomplish and to be able to recognize the change which is occurring. The following 10 Commandments summarize some of the behavioral objectives cited throughout this paper.

  1. Communicate
  2. Layer your behavioral objectives
  3. Be an objective analyzer -- watch for the signals
  4. Reorganize and modify behavior
  5. Exhibit your talent- "Leaperize" your behavioral performance - do not be afraid of being/doing wrong
  6. Accept imperfection - especially that which cannot be eliminated or modified
  7. Participate in your child's therapy
  8. Develop consistency, stability, quantity, and quality in your life and relationships
  9. Find goodness in yourself and be good to yourself
  10. Be positive - forward moving - optimistic

*"10 Commandments I: Self Actualization," in "Therapy Induced Guilt" by Gerald F. Johnson, presented at the Ninth Annual Meeting of the National Council of Stutterers, October 9, 1982; published in the Speak Easy Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 4, Final 1982 Edition.

added with permission of the author
October 22, 1998