Kids who stutter know what they want to say, but the words just don't come out smoothly. They might repeat a word or a sound or drag out part of a word.
Some kids may have problems with certain sounds. For instance, "Ss" and "Zs" are tough for kids with a lisp. They say the "th" sound when they mean to use an "s" or "z" sound. Other kids have trouble only with words that have "Rs" in them.
But whatever the speech problem, help is available.
What Are Stuttering and Speech Problems?
As human beings, we have the special ability to share our thoughts by talking. We start by forming a thought in our brains. In the brain, this thought is changed into a code we've learned called language. Once the thought is coded into language, the brain sends a message to the muscles that control speech, telling them to move and make the right sounds come out. Then the mouth, face, neck, tongue, and throat muscles move to form words.
Sometimes this process doesn't work perfectly, though. There might be an interruption or break in the flow of speech. This interruption is called a dysfluency (say: dis-FLOO-en-see).
Now and then, everyone has trouble getting words out. It's normal to stumble over a word or two every once in a while. Dysfluency becomes a speech problem, though, when it gets in the way of everyday talking and is noticeable to other people. A person may have a tough time getting thoughts out. It also can cause embarrassment or frustration.
Why Do Kids Have Speech Problems?
Doctors and scientists aren't completely sure why talking is harder for some kids. But most believe speech difficulties happen because there's a problem with the way the brain's messages interact with the muscles and body parts needed for speaking.
Many believe that stuttering may be genetic (say: juh-NEH-tik). This means that a characteristic — in this case, dysfluency — is passed on in the genes. Kids who stutter are three times more likely to have a close family member who also stutters. So if you stutter, you may have a grandmother, parent, or brother or sister who stutters or used to.
How Are Speech Problems Diagnosed?
Your regular doctor might refer you to a speech and language therapist or you might go to one directly. Sometimes, the therapist, also called a speech and language pathologist (say: pah-THOL-uh-jist), will come right to your school to meet with you. The therapist may ask you to read out loud, pronounce some words, or do some talking.
You might also have a hearing test with an audiologist (say: aw-dee-OL-uh-jist), a specialist who diagnoses hearing problems. Why would you need to take a hearing test? Because if you can't hear very well, you may have trouble hearing yourself and pronouncing words properly.
How Are Stuttering or Other Speech Problems Treated?
After you've seen the speech and language therapist, they'll go over the results of the tests with you and one or both of your parents. The tests may show that you need speech therapy. These are sessions when you can work on your speech and practice your skills. Your therapy session could be just you and the therapist or you might have a session with a group of kids.
It's also important to spend time practicing your skills on your own. The therapist can give you exercises that you can do at home. Practicing will improve your skills and help with your everyday talking. You'll discover easier or different ways of making sounds so you can speak more clearly.
At first, these skills may seem strange or even feel a little weird. But give it some time. Soon, if you work at it, you'll notice improvement and start to feel more confident in your speaking. You won't be perfect at it, but that's OK. No one talks perfectly 100% of the time.
Living With a Speech Problem
Having a speech problem might make you feel sad or shy. You might even decide it would be easier if you just didn't talk too much.
But as with other kinds of problems, ignoring speech problems won't make them go away. Instead of hiding a lisp or stutter, be open about the way you talk and the steps you're taking to improve your speech. Explain the situation to friends and teachers.
Unfortunately, living with a speech problem may also mean learning how to deal with teasing. It really hurts when someone makes fun of you for something you can't completely control, like the way you talk.
Turn to your parents, friends, and teachers for support. If someone makes fun of you, simply say you have a speech problem and you're working on correcting it. If the teasing keeps going, ask an adult for help.
Be patient with yourself. Most kids with speech problems will get better at talking, especially if they practice, practice, practice.
If you don't have a speech problem, but you know someone who does, try to be a friend. Be patient while your friend finishes a thought, and don't be afraid to say (politely) that you didn't understand what they said and could they please say it again.
Medically reviewed by: Julia K. Hartnett, MS, CCC-SLP