Last fall I had the pleasure of attending an NSA Family Fun Day at the University of Minnesota, The day included a panel of adults who stutter speaking to parents of children who stutter. When asked what success looks like, each and every one of these adults said it was not about being fluent, but about putting yourself out there and saying what it is you want to say. They spoke frequently about the importance of self-confidence overall, not just about their speech. One man stated that he loved going to therapy as a child, but didn’t find the speech tools and techniques helpful. I asked him what he loved about it. He replied, “I felt like I was accepted and listened to. I felt safe.”
Self-confidence, acceptance, and feeling safe … that’s what we all want for our kids, both during their childhood and into their adult years. Speaking for children, I believe that the inclusion of speech tools and techniques, although intended to support self-confidence and communication, often does the opposite. As an expert on the subject of bullying in the workplace, the late Tim Field stated that a common strategy used to bully an employee is to “put the individual in a situation in which failure is almost certain.”  Speech therapists and parents often talk about how kids will use their speech tools while in the clinic setting, but rarely beyond those walls. Why are we setting them up for constant failure by asking them to do something that most adults find impossible to do? Family Lives, a charitable organization in the UK, claims that when a disabled child is being bullied:
– their condition may be reinforced or worsened, and
– they may become reluctant to mix in social situations. 
From the time he was three until he was nine, our son’s stuttering behavior went from mild to moderate to severe (condition reinforced or worsened), and he became silent and withdrawn (reluctant to mix in social situations). During this period we were engaging him in speech therapy that hinged primarily on the use of speech tools and techniques. While I know that there is not one iota of malicious intent from either speech therapists or parents when they embrace the idea of speech tools to help children who stutter, we cannot continue to close our eyes and ears to the potential life-long consequences of setting our kids up to fail in this way. I am not suggesting that all will fail, but too many will fail – way too many. When will we accept the fact that the outcome of these expectations is often the opposite of self-confidence, acceptance and feeling safe? When will we come up with less risky and more effective options for supporting children and their families who are struggling with this issue?
There’s hope. I am encouraged by emerging strategies that first and foremost target the fear and anxiety that often builds up around the effort to communicate including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Neuro-linguistics Programming, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The problem is that too many of these efforts are focused on teens and adults. What can parents and speech therapists do with children to minimize the need for these interventions in the first place? How can we minimize the negative messaging, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness that too often builds up in children who stutter? How can this field work with parents to integrate interaction styles that support free-flowing speech, keeping communication fun, and creating as many opportunities as possible for anxiety-free speaking for our children?
I would have never in a million years thought of myself or our speech therapists as bullies when we continually encouraged our son to practice and use his speech tools outside the clinic setting. And yet I understand now that I was putting him “in a situation in which failure was almost certain” each and every day, each and every hour.
It may seem harsh to label our actions as bullying, but the similarities around the negative impact are too concerning to ignore. We must work together to develop safer, more supportive options for helping children who stutter. We must keep them talking, keep it fun and first do no harm!
- Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 43
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