Doreen (Dori) Lenz Holte is mom to a 24-year old son who stutters and author of Voice Unearthed: Hope, Help, and a Wake-up Call for the Parents of Children Who Stutter. (voiceunearthed.com) Dori enjoys connecting with parents across the world on the Voice Unearthed Facebook group and with students of communications disorders, professional organizations, and speech therapy groups both remotely and in person. She also enjoys doing grant consulting work for nonprofits, teaching grant writing workshops, and playing card and board games with her family. She recently took up tap dancing.
While we don’t know what causes speech tension (I prefer that term over stuttering), we do know that a parent’s response can have a powerful impact on either minimizing or exacerbating the issue. Dr. Dan Seigel, author of The Yes Brain, states that “A parent’s resilience serves as a template for a child to see how to deal with challenges, how to understand their own emotions.”1 It’s like the oxygen mask on the plane, parents need theirs first in order to best help their child.
Having my own oxygen mask would have been helpful when our son, Eli, started experiencing speech tension at 2 ½ years of age. Instead, in an effort to fix what was wrong, I frantically passed the oxygen mask to him and entered the 3C’s stage of this journey:
- Crying. I crawled into bed, put the covers over my head, and sobbed my heart out – often. Conversations with other moms and family members were often filled with angst, fear, and sadness.
- Cringing: Not outwardly, but my heart, my stomach, my shoulders, and behind my eyes seized every time those tiny blood vessels popped out and his face turned red trying to talk. As hard as I tried to maintain a calm, happy face, he would have to have been in a coma to not pick up on my anxiety.
- Catastrophizing our son’s future.
- He’ll never have friends
- He’ll never find a life partner
- He’ll never survive a job interview
- He’ll not be able to pursue his career of choice
- He’ll be bullied and teased
- He’ll be laughed at or even worse, ignored
(Spoiler alert: Other than being teased a few times, these scenarios never played out.)
This was my frame of mind in 1999 when we had him assessed by a professional and his speech was as smooth as a baby’s butt. We were sent away with the message to slow down our speech, make good eye contact, and come back in six months if the speech tension continued. I left feeling alone, dismissed, and helpless.
The behavior persisted and soon Eli was in speech therapy focused on minimizing or better yet, eradicating the speech tension using fluency shaping and stuttering modification techniques. I mostly stayed in the waiting area, ruminating on the 3C’s and writing out the check. When I was included in therapy, it was for me learn ways to encourage him to use his speech tools to lessen the speech tension. As time went by, his speech measures went from mild to moderate to severe which put my 3C’s on steroids. I became even more desperate to access resources focused on putting this behind us. Our week was filled with hours in the car to access speech therapy, daily special time to practice speech tools, and a growing sense of futility.
The irony was that the 3Cs mindset eating away at my resilience was exactly the mindset we did not want our son to develop. We did not want him to be filled with sadness, to cringe when he experienced speech tension, or to catastrophize his future.
By the time Eli was nine, his withdrawal was marked. It was heart-breaking and believe me, at that stage I was not the best role model for resilience. Our sadness was palatable and my tears were abundant. The words of developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, describe this point well. He states that “sadness is a pivotal emotion and tears present an opportunity for a turning point.” Our turning point was when our new speech therapist, now retired Dr. Jerry Halvorson, said, “we have to get him talking again because his previous therapy sucked all the fun right out of it.” I felt a mind-shift of epic proportions. Now Dad and I were in therapy to become better role models for resiliency not just for Eli, but for all three of our kids.
We were in therapy to become better at the 3L’s (live, laugh, and love) instead of the 3R’s. Remember the kitschy LIVE, LAUGH, and LOVE signs that were the highlight of every gift shop in the 90’s? Overused? Yes, but sometimes we just need to be reminded of what’s really important. This guidance we received from Dr. Halvorson helped us infuse our lives with more living, laughing, and loving and less fixing. Instead of focusing on results, we focused on creating a space for resiliency to grow in all of us. We did this through:
- Less judgement: We learned to stop judging our son’s communication efforts by whether or not he stuttered, but by rejoicing when he talked and let his voice be heard. We learned to recognize the times when he talked the most, laughed the most, was most engaged. Who was he with? What was he doing? What could we do to make those circumstances more common to his life?
- Authentic listening: We learned to become better listeners with LESS eye contact. Dr. Halvorson said “Every time he talks, your head swivels like an owl. You’re making him crazy.” (If you’re starting to get the picture of a rather unorthodox SLP full of clever quips, you’d be very accurate.) There was a time and a place for good eye contact, and a time and a place to just nod, say uh huh, and keep doing whatever you’re doing. (This is especially good guidance when you’re driving.)
- Leaving space: We also learned the power of keeping quiet, giving others space to speak. We learned to generate conversation by making comments and statements rather than asking questions.
- Letting go of perfection: We learned to role model imperfection, and, when appropriate, share feelings of frustration, disappointment, sadness, joy. Our kids needed to see our resilience to these circumstances.
- Self-care: We honed our capacity for patience, calm, and self-care. Deep breaths, meditation, yoga, exercise all contributed to patience and calm. Feeling free to take a break, doing something mindless, taking a nap, reading a good book, watching movies, playing games, hanging with friends and loved ones, etc. I became an excellent role model for those behaviors.
- Honesty and transparency: We learned the value of sharing our problem-solving process and creative thinking when faced with adversity.
- Being grateful: We learned to infuse gratefulness into our daily routine. Not gratefulness around whether or not he stuttered, but gratefulness for all the good things that happened that day, for the people in our lives, for our successes, our failures, our opportunities, etc.
- Genuine acceptance: We learned to focus more on all that was wonderful about our kids, to celebrate their strengths and what made them unique rather than putting so much energy into fixing them.
- Less inhibition: We learned how to infuse more fun and craziness in our world!! (My favorite fun was playing “Build Me Up Buttercup” at full blast and singing and dancing around the house. This was the perfect way to role model imperfection and inhibition and still is, much to their chagrin.)
Just imagine how different things might have been if instead of catastrophizing his future, I could have possessed a crystal ball. Eli would graduate from college with honors, intentionally seek out positions filled with connections and communication, have dear friends and an active social life, and engage fully in the world around him – even though he still experiences speech tension.
I now realize that even if the speech tension persists, most kids will grow up to live full and productive lives. Both the Voice Unearthed website and the National Stuttering Association website feature successful adults who stutter. These adults are wonderful role models for resiliency and engagement in the world around them. Go to
Thank you to the ISAD Online Conference Team for choosing resilience as the theme for this year’s conference. Nothing is more critical and essential to the short and long-term well-being of children who stutter.
Seigel, Daniel J., M.D., Bryson, Tina Payne, Ph.D. (2018). The Yes Brain, New York, Bantam Books
Neufeld, Gordon, Ph.D., Mate, Gabor, M.D., (2014) Hold On To Your Kids New York, Ballantine Books
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