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When Your Young Child Stutters and Has Tantrums

Ideas for creating a calm, safe, caring, listening environment.

Jonty via Flickr
Source: Jonty via Flickr

Learning to talk is one of the most complex and challenging tasks of the first few years of life. There are so many complicated physical, cognitive, and emotional mechanisms involved, and they all have to come together perfectly for fluent speaking.

When a child learns to communicate their thoughts, needs, and wishes, it opens the world, increasing the child’s sense of freedom, emotional connection, competence, and independence. It also affects their confidence and self-esteem: a child who feels listened to feels respected.

A child who stutters, however, experiences trouble communicating, which is frustrating and embarrassing. So it should not be surprising when a young child who stutters throws a tantrum. A tantrum is a vivid way to effectively communicate the frustration, anger, and powerlessness a stutterer very understandably feels.

Stuttering is not uncommon. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, five to ten percent of children will stutter at some point, and most of them will outgrow it naturally without any interventions. It usually ends within a few days, weeks, or months. It’s usually worse when the child is tired, excited, worried, angry, or upset.

In “Happily Chatty Toddlers Who Start to Stutter,” I review 12 strategies for responding to a child who stutters. This includes being patient, listening to your child calmly, keeping yourself relaxed, being encouraging, making time for individual attention, keeping your own communication short, simple, and positive, and more.

What to Do When Your Stutterer Has a Tantrum

It’s totally normal for young children to get furious and frustrated before they’ve developed the language skills and emotional habits of mind that are necessary for communication, or when they don’t feel they’re being listened to. This is something stutterers experience more than other children of the same age. As with stuttering, tantrums are more likely when a child is tired, worried, hungry, or otherwise out of balance.

In “Toddler Tantrums: Hitting, Kicking, Scratching, and Biting,” I describe the basic rules for responding to tantrums. This includes keeping your own temper, stopping the aggression, going somewhere private to allow your child some dignity in their cool-down process, and helping your child use their words. This is where it gets even trickier for parents of stutterers. Not being able to use their words can be one of the causes of your child’s tantrum.

The most effective response to a stutterer’s tantrum is the same as for other children, but it requires even more sensitivity and patience on your part. Once you’ve stopped your child’s aggressive acting out, and they have calmed down enough they can hear you, look them in the eye, and tell them firmly, calmly, and kindly something like, “I know you are frustrated, but it is not okay to hit/kick/bite (whatever they’ve been doing).” Be matter-of-fact and strong. No matter how you are feeling—angry, worried, embarrassed, whatever—this is a time when it’s important you act like a good and loving parent.

Once your child has calmed down, and before too much time has passed, have a short chat about what happened. You might say, “Hitting is never okay. When you notice you’re about to hit (or scratch, etc.), try to let me know how you feel. Instead of hitting, maybe you can point to your tummy to tell me you are hungry, or grab my hand to tell me you need me to listen to you.” Work out a nonverbal communication system that allows your child to express their needs, and be sure to stay present and alert to the cues you decide on together.

How Can You Prevent Tantrums with Your Stutterer?

The same principles are at play for a young child who stutters as for other young children, but it requires more focused attention on the part of the adults in the child’s life.

1. Give your child your full attention.

No phones or other devices when you are with them, except for emergencies. Respond quickly and attentively to your child, so they don’t have to escalate their communications into tantrums to get your attention.

2. Cuddle your child.

Provide warm close affection actively and often. Show them you love and cherish them.

3. Keep to a schedule.

A dependable schedule for playing, sleeping, and eating helps a child feel the world is safe and predictable, and also ensures their physical needs are being met.

4. Provide choices whenever possible.

Try to give your child as much control over their environment and activities as possible. For example, “Here are four books you like. Which one should we read?” “Would you like some sauce on your potatoes?” “Which shirt do you want today, the red one or the blue one?”

5. Is your child bored?

Make sure your child gets enough different kinds of stimulation—musical, physical, intellectual, artistic, social, and visual.

6. Are they getting enough outdoor playtime?

Children can act out when they need more physical activity. A two-year-old needs three hours of active exercise every day. Ideally, a good portion of that is outdoors.

7. Ensure your child’s environment is harmonious.

Tantrums can result from spending time with angry or impatient people, or be a response to other people’s worries or tensions.

8. Try role-playing.

In a calm, easy moment, re-enact a recent tantrum, reversing the roles. Do it kindly, with humor, and no mockery. Think together about possibilities for communicating feelings, other than tantrums. I’ve seen even very young children come up with delightfully inventive alternatives to tantrums.

9. Create a checklist of good nonverbal alternatives.

Ask your child for suggestions. You can illustrate your checklist if you like, or paste on a photo of an angry bird or a violent child (crossed out with a big X), as well as a happy photo. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Find a quiet corner. Work with your child to find a special corner they can go to when they’re feeling out of control. If they have a special blanket, stuffed animal, or toy, let them take it to their quiet corner. You can ask if they want to go to their quiet corner when you notice them getting out of control, but don’t send them there as punishment. You want them to experience it as a place to collect their thoughts and gain control of their emotions.
  • Dragon breath. Have your child breathe in to the count of five, hold their breath to the count of five, then breathe out like a dragon to the count of five. Remind them to breathe out all their fire.
  • Get physical. In a calm moment, work out some physical options your child likes. That might include hitting a pillow, stomping their feet while punching the sky, doing an angry dance, or doing some yoga poses.
  • Use your emergency code. Help your toddler find a nonverbal SOS code. It can be reaching both hands up to you, sitting on the ground with their head between their legs, or a squawking sound you both recognize. Be sure to pay immediate attention when your child sounds their personal alarm.
  • Walk away. You don’t want your child walking very far away from you, but walking safely away is better than scratching you.

10. Take good care of yourself.

Parenting a young child is hard and serious work. When the child is dealing with extra challenges like stuttering or tantrums, or both, it takes strength, focus, and wisdom to do it well. It helps when you remember that with time and attention, everything develops: Your child can learn to communicate effectively, and to regulate their emotions. Find ways of managing your own emotions so you can stay patient and attentive.

Additional Resources

Stuttering,” by National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Breaking Five Stuttering Myths,” by Katherine Preston

Happily Chatty Toddlers Who Start to Stutter,” by Dona Matthews