This is the fifth post in a series on parenting a child who stutters as an adult who stutters. For context, I’ve worked hard to achieve my own personal version of self-acceptance of my stutter, and, therefore, may hold different perspectives on how best to support my son’s journey. I offer my story and that of my family to bring awareness to this part of the stuttering experience that both people who stutter often fear and usually overlook as a transition in their journey that we will have to confront.
The aspect of my son’s stutter that I hadn’t thought about was my adjustment to all its glory in public. Other people talking to him and other people hearing him stutter has left me on edge, sent my thoughts swirling, and numbed my presence until the interactions end. This experience is what it felt like prior to establishing a baseline self-acceptance of my own stutter. Suddenly, in many ways, I’m back where I started.
This is square one of desensitizing to all the potentialities that could happen if someone chooses to mock my son’s ever-developing stutter. But that’s the old way of simply surrendering control to the negative all-consuming stranglehold stuttering can inflict on one’s life. By this I mean staying on-guard, hyperalert, and watchful for people who might comment on your stutter, though they rarely do, if ever.
That’s what this loss of control has felt like to me since his stuttering pattern has become more struggled. And it’s exhausting, just how I remember it, as if the grooves in my nervous system were patiently waiting for the past ten years to wake up and sustain this heightened state of anxiety.
This is where I am now. I’m hyper-sensitive to others hearing his stuttering.
The difference this time around is that I’m equipped to fight my way through it and stay present to shield our son, model appropriate responses for him and my wife, and finally prepare him to learn how to respond and advocate for himself.
What does this look like in practice?
What will I say and do when someone says something about or mocks his stutter?
- Shield: First, I am preparing for the inevitable. It is going to happen. I’ll need to respond in the opposite way than how I did as a young child constantly on guard waiting to protect myself—without anger or the desire to stick it to the aggressor. A key aspect of this semi-confrontational interaction is my son will be watching, absorbing the emotions of the moment like a sponge, and vicariously beginning to learn how he should respond. In other words, this is when modeling right behavior begins. “Oh, he stutters like me and is making it a part of his life.” This response diffuses what could become a lasting traumatic memory into one that promotes growth and shields him from an emotional response that silences his stutter.
- Model: The goal of shielding him in the beginning of his journey is not to deny him the opportunity to figure it out on his own. Rather, it is to help keep him stay present, in each moment, to be able to process what is happening and his thoughts, feelings, and emotions thereafter. While I may never have had a model, my nervous system shut down my presence and took over my response, before I had a choice. In time, my assignment as the model is manufacture scenarios in which I preempt comments and talk openly about his stuttering with him involved in the exchange. This will not be as challenging as a defensive response, though the more him and I do it together, the soon he will feel comfortable enough to weather these encounters on his own. Modeling, though, begins in our home where he hears and sees my stuttering, and knows it is more than okay to talk about it—a true vicarious learning experience.
- Prepare: My responsibility as both his father and primary model is to ultimately walk alongside him until he is prepared enough to constructively defend himself without it generating a traumatic response. We, as his parents, accept that we cannot expect to shield him from every hurtful comment. However, he is not going to walk around laser-focused ready to respond with anger every day of his life. The more opportunities he has to mitigate the impact of potentially hurtful comments, the sooner he’ll progress to becoming his own proactive advocate. “Oh, I just stutter, it’s not a big deal.” However long it takes him to get this point in his self-acceptance journey, we’ll be there to support and prepare him.
I don’t feel sorry for him, and I am not ashamed of his stutter. He’ll take some shots. I’ll struggle at times. But we’re not going to turn what could be traumatic into a weight that we both carry unwillingly into the future.
My son will be just as much of a model for me in this effort as I will be for him.
For more on my experiences of being a parent who stutters, see the following series of posts I've published the last four days for National Stuttering Awareness Week. Onset: My Son's Beautiful Stutter My Only Sunshine: Our Reactions to Stuttering I Have A Son Who Stutters: Acceptance As A Person Who Stutters Ricochet