Effects of Stuttering on the Individual

Original Author: Julie Farnsworth, former student
Revised by: Cindy S. Spillers, current web master

Every person stumbles over their words now and then. When most of us are dysfluent, we may feel embarrassed but we quickly recover from it. For people who stutter (PWS), each dysfluency can be a fearful, anxiety-filled experience. A life filled with these difficult experiences can affect a person's self-concept, personality and personal relationships. Stuttering affects friends and family of the person who stutters as well. Moreover, family and friend's reactions and feelings about the stuttering can have a significant impact on the person who stutters. The following will give insight into the emotional and psychosocial ramifications of stuttering on the individual and those around him or her.

Self-concept refers to how a person sees him or herself; some authors have called it the "image we hold in our mind's eye." It is composed of body image (how we view our bodies in space and time), self-esteem (our sense of worthwhileness), and identity (how we call ourselves and describe ourselves). We begin to form our self-concept early in life, partially based on other people's reactions and responses to us. We internalize these messages and begin to tell them to ourselves. For many people who stutter, their self-concept revolves around their stuttering. PWS may have experienced a number of negative and disapproving reactions to their stuttering. The person may internalize these reactions and begin to believe that their stuttering is socially unacceptable behavior and they are socially unacceptable people because of their stuttering. PWS may label themselves as "stutterers" and take on the negative stereotypes that go with it.

Because of the negative self-concept that people who stutter sometimes have, they present some characteristics that we associate with personality. Stuttering is not a personality disorder and there is no defined "stuttering personality." However, many people who stutter share some similar traits. These traits are summarized in Stuttering and Other Fluency Disorders (2004) by Franklin Silverman (see the references)

First, people who stutter may not be as outgoing as they normally would be if they did not stutter. People who stutter may avoid talking in many situations for fear of getting laughed at or misunderstood. They may present themselves as shy or withdrawn when, in reality, they have an outgoing personality. Their view of their stuttering prevents them from expressing their personality the way they would like to. A second trait common to many PWS is an unwillingness to express anger in an open way, even when there may be cause to do so. One reason for this trait may be fear of rejection. Third, many people who stutter experience depression. This depression usually develops in response to living with a complicated, unpredictable, and socially unacceptable disorder such as stuttering. The depression can result from grieving the loss of fluency and the loss of relationships because of their fluency, or grieving the loss of the self that they have kept hidden.

A fourth trait shared by many PWS is guilt. Stutterers may feel that they could stop stuttering if they only tried hard enough, had more will power, or were stronger people. This guilt is reinforced by well meaning people who give advice like "slow down, take a deep breath, think about what you want to say." This advice makes the control of stuttering seem so simple, when it really is much more complicated than that. Feelings of guilt can also be reinforced by well meaning clinicians. Clinicians unknowingly and unintentionally convey the same message to clients that they could do better at controlling their stuttering if they would only try harder. Clinicians who do not stutter themselves often do not realize the depth of emotional pain and fear that PWS can have regarding their stuttering. Fear can be a silent and powerful shackle that holds people back from making healthy changes in their lives. Guilt can also stem from feeling as if they are violating a social expectation by taking up too much of their listeners' time. From an early age we are all socialized to expect the information in a message to come out at just the right rate, between 150-170 words per minute. When information comes out too fast, we feel anxious and frustrated because we are missing parts of it. When information comes out too slowly, we feel impatient and bored because we have other things to do and this person is taking more of our time than they are entitled to have. People who stutter pick up on these subtle and blatant messages that listeners convey to them and they internalize those messages that they are taking more of their listeners' time than they deserve to take.

Anxiety about speaking is the fifth characteristic that many PWS share. Anxiety can come from anticipating having difficulty in a situation, anticipating a negative reaction from the listener, and wanting to avoid the pain and embarrassment of it all. We would expect that people with severe stuttering would experience more anxiety and desire to avoid stuttering than people with mild stuttering, but often the opposite is true. People with mild stuttering sometimes can hide their stuttering and pass for normal. In this case, each encounter with a listener with whom they have "passed" before may generate anxiety and fear about "will I pass this time or will I be found out? If I stutter, will the person still accept me?" The person with severe stuttering usually can't conceal it enough to pass for normal and finds out rather quickly which listeners accept her/him and which ones don't.

The final trait common among PWS is a feeling that speech is out of their control. This is sometimes referred to as an external locus of control. People who stutter may feel as if they cannot control what their mouths do and have no control over when and where they are fluent. They often ascribe their stuttering to external factors in a situation: the location, the listener's reaction, the presence of people in the vicinity who may overhear them stuttering, or how much sleep they got the night before. With this view of control, PWS often attribute moments of fluency to luck and chance. An external locus of control regarding speech can interfere with progress in therapy. Therapy requires the stutterer to learn how to control their speech and to take responsibility for that control. This responsibility also includes actively chosing when they will try to manage their stuttering and when they will let it go and not try to control it. It is difficult to make active choices about something that we attribute to chance.

A few groups of people can have an impact on the self-concepts of people who stutter and can help them develop healthy, positive views of themselves. First, parents play a major role in their child's overall development. Since parents are usually the people with whom a child has the most contact, their reactions to stuttering will be important. Some parents react by patiently waiting for the child to finish, acting unconcerned about their child's stuttering. However, many parents react to their child's stuttering in a different way. Some will finish their child's sentences, tell the child to slow down, or give other words of advice. Often times parents are not aware that they are showing any reactions to their child's stuttering and these subtle, unconscious reactions can have the most negative impact on the child's developing self-concept. See the section on Do's and Don'ts for ideas on helpful, positive ways to respond to stuttering.

Teachers may encounter stuttering students on a daily basis. When a child who stutters wants to answer a question, he or she may use different words than they normally would in an attempt to avoid difficult words. Sometimes a child may try to avoid answering at all by saying "I don't know." In these situations the teacher may not realize that the child is trying to avoid stuttering and will view the child as less intelligent that he or she really is. Teachers can help children who stutter by talking with the child privately to find out how the child feels about the stuttering and how the child wants the teacher to handle it in the classroom. The Do's and Don'ts section has some suggestions that will be helpful for teachers to try.

People who stutter face some difficult emotional obstacles in life. The anxiety and fear that develop around stuttering can cause changes in self-concept and lead to a variety of emotional responses for coping with the a disorder that is unpredictable and socially unacceptable. Knowing how a person is affected by stuttering will give us a better ability to understand the disorder and help the individual cope with it in positive and healthy ways.

Revised June 2011

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