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2009-10-08 digital edition

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2009-10-08 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Children's Stuttering Usually Disappers Over Time

Question: Should I be concerned about my two-and-ahalf year-old son's tendency to stammer and repeat words? If he has a real stuttering problem, I don't want to wait too long before doing something about it.

Dr. Dobson: Your son's stammer will probably disappear in time, but just to be safe, you should take him in now for an evaluation. There is a "normal stuttering" that is common between the ages of two and six, when a child's knowledge and vocabulary are expanding faster than his neurological ability to verbalize his thoughts. However, you should be aware of some secondary mannerisms which are indicative of a pathological stuttering beyond the normal disfluency found in preschoolers, including the child's struggling noticeably to get words out; obvious frustration in the child while trying to speak; increasing vocal tension resulting in rising pitch or loudness; or very long prolongation (several seconds) of syllables.

Whether these secondary mannerisms are present or not, the Speech and Hearing Division of Children's Hospital in Los Angeles encourages parents to bring a child with speech difficulties in for an evaluation as early as two years of age. The likelihood of your son's having a pathological stuttering problem is slim, but experts believe it is best to be cautious at this age — they would rather take the time to put a child through an unnecessary evaluation than to allow a potential speech problem to go unchecked.

Question: My twelve-year-old was asked to recite a poem at a school function the other day, and he went completely blank in front of the crowd. I know he knew the poem perfectly because he said it dozens of times at home. He's a bright child, but he's had this trouble before. Why does his mind "turn off" when he's under pressure? What can I do to help him?

Dr. Dobson: It will be helpful to understand an important characteristic of intellectual functioning. Your son's selfconfidence, or the lack of it, actually affects the way his brain operates. All of us have experienced the frustration of mental "blocking," which you described. This occurs when a name or fact or idea just won't surface to the conscious mind, even though we know it is recorded in the memory. Or suppose we are about to speak to an antagonistic group and our mind suddenly goes blank. This kind of blocking usually occurs (1) when social pressure is great, and (2) when self-confidence is low.

Why? Because emotions affect the efficiency of the human brain. Unlike a computer, our mental apparatus only functions properly when a delicate biochemical balance exists between the neural cells. Substances called neurotransmitters make it possible for a cell to "fire" its electrochemical charge cross the gap (synapse) to another cell. It is now known that a sudden emotional reaction can instantly change the nature of this biochemistry, interfering with the impulse. This blockage prevents the electrical charge from being relayed, and the thought is never generated.

This mechanism has profound implications for human behavior; for example, a child who feels inferior and intellectually inadequate often does not even make use of the mental power with which he has been endowed. His lack of confidence produces a disrupting mental inefficiency, and the two factors go around in an endless cycle of defeat. This is seemingly what happened to your son when he "forgot" the poem.

Actually, it is not unusual for a twelve-year-old to "choke" in front of a crowd. I once stood before three hundred fellow teenagers with my words stuck in my throat and my mind totally out to lunch. It was a painful experience, but time gradually erased its impact. As your child matures, he will probably overcome the problem if he can experience a few successes to build his confidence. Anything that raises self-esteem will reduce the frequency of mental blocking for children and adults alike.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family.

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