Stuttering in adolescents
Stuttering is a fluency disorder which can present in several different ways in adolescents.
You or an adolescent you know may have started:
- repeating words, sounds, or syllables;
- pausing or holding sounds for longer than usual;
- using a lot of empty phrases such as ‘umm’ and ‘ahhh’; or
- making new eye or head movements while talking.
We all have these patterns in our speech from time to time. However, if they are regular and not able to be easily controlled, a person may be stuttering.
Stuttering in adolescents can range from mild to severe. It can be frustrating and impact all aspects of adolescent life. People who stutter are more prone to anxiety and can take a long time to get their message across. This can further complicate the social lives of adolescents and the challenges they are already facing every day. The ability to speak freely in front of one's friends, peers, teachers, and family is something that is important to all of us and struggling with this can have a critical impact on an adolescent’s confidence and sense of self.
Thankfully, there are several treatment options available to significantly reduce the impact of stuttering. In fact, here in Australia, we are world leaders in the treatment of stuttering for adolescents and we are home to programs that have been extensively researched and utilised with great success.
What causes stuttering?
The short answer is – despite this question having been researched over many decades – no one is exactly sure. What we do know is that stuttering is multifactorial. That is, stuttering is influenced by cognitive, linguistic, affective (emotional), environmental and motor movement factors during what we call a complex stuttering moment. We suspect that a complex stuttering moment is caused by a sort of ‘glitch’ in the brain when the person who stutters goes to speak.
In some instances, stuttering runs in families, however this is not always the case. We do know that first signs of stuttering usually appear between the ages of two and six, and that stuttering is more common in boys than girls. Children who have a stutter that does not resolve naturally while they are young may continue to stutter into adolescence. The stutter may have come and gone at different times over the years, or may only be noticeable in certain situations, but the underlying predisposition to stutter is generally lifelong. That is, people who are still stuttering in adolescence are not likely to grow out of it naturally and treatment is generally recommended to reduce stuttering at this age.
Is there a cure for adolescent stuttering?
With consistent therapy and support, many adolescents can reduce their stutter so that it is barely – or not at all – detectable while they are speaking.
We are careful not to call this a ‘cure’ for stuttering because stuttering is episodic in nature, and it is likely that symptoms will return during times of stress or later in life. However, by reducing the severity of the stutter and empowering the adolescent with strategies for speaking fluently, we can drastically improve their ability to speak freely and confidently, and even improve their quality of life.
If you are interested in stuttering therapy for an older adolescent (aged 17 or 18), you may also like to read about stuttering in adults here.
What does therapy involve?
Therapy for stuttering involves attending regular Speech Pathology sessions and working through a structured program under the supervision of your therapist.
The Camperdown Program is the gold-standard evidence-based program for treating stuttering in adolescents and adults. This client-centered program retrains the speech pattern, allowing the adolescent to control their level of stuttering to their own satisfaction. This program usually takes a minimum of 10-20 therapy hours, plus daily practice, to achieve near zero stuttering. This is then followed by periodic ongoing maintenance.
Studies have shown that Telehealth (online therapy) is the preferred delivery method for the Camperdown Program for many adolescents. Read more about Telehealth (online therapy) here. Studies have also found that motivation is a significant indicator of success when working with adolescents who stutter, so be prepared for the Speech Pathologist to ask: How much do you want this? Therapy that is client-driven, rather than parent-driven, has the greatest chance of success.
Stuttering and anxiety
Anxiety appears in higher rates amongst people who stutter than in the general population and can further contribute to difficulties with communication. A Speech Pathologist will be able to determine whether anxiety is likely to be contributing to communication difficulties and whether treatment for anxiety is also recommended to facilitate stuttering treatment.
Carey, B., O’Brian, S, Onslow, M., Packman, A. & Menzies, R. (2012) Webcam delivery of the Camperdown Program for adolescents who stutter: A phase 1 trial. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, (43)3, 370-380. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2011/11-0010)
Lowe, R., Menzies, R., Onslow, M., Packman, A., & O'Brian, S. (2021). Speech and anxiety management with persistent stuttering: Current status and essential research. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 64(1), 59–74. https://doi.org/10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00144