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Does Stuttering Cause Anxiety or Does Anxiety Cause Stuttering?

At first glance, it seems to be the chicken and egg question. Which came first? But a closer look at the recent research reveals that there isn’t much of a question at all.

Stuttering: First a little background

Stuttering disrupts the way a person speaks which invariably makes it tough to finish a sentence. Those plagued with a stutter often find it difficult to sound out a word, or seem always to be interrupting their thoughts with an “um" or an “uh."

Research shows that stuttering generally begins in early childhood between the ages of two and five. Nearly 5% of those children who stutter as toddlers will carry their speech impediment throughout their life.

Does anxiety cause stuttering?

The question as to how stuttering and anxiety are related to one another had been the subject of debate in both the speech therapy and mental health worlds for years. Among the professionals, the prevailing opinion throughout the 20th Century was that the cause of stuttering in young children wasn’t physiological but rather was due to psychological factors such as anxiety. It was assumed that children who stuttered were more anxious than their siblings who didn’t.

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Or does stuttering cause social anxiety?

However recent research has shown this presumption to be erroneous. There is little to no evidence supporting that anxiety causes stuttering in children. Studies have shown that those children who stutter aren’t more anxious than other kids.  

In the June 2014 Journal of Fluency Disorders, Dr. Lisa Iverach published an article tackling this point. She intended to raise awareness regarding the impact of stuttering in children as they grow into adolescence and adulthood and their accompanying vulnerability to social anxiety disorder.

Dr. Iverach argued that it is a mistake to dismiss stuttering as a bad habit that children will outgrow. On the contrary, clinical studies have shown that stuttering is a direct cause of social anxiety throughout one’s entire life.

Getting more specific, Dr. Iverach writes that, “One of the main characteristics of social anxiety is the fear of negative evaluation or the fear of being judged. Children and adolescents who stutter may be the targets of bullying, not only as a result of their stuttering but also in response to their displays of anxiety and nervousness."

We all know that children will pick on each other for even the tiniest reason. And who could be a more inviting target to bully than the kid who is incapable of getting a sentence clearly out of his mouth? Sound like a perfect recipe for bullying?

And in some extreme cases, due to the almost guaranteed ridicule that will be suffered at the hands of the other children, the child who stutters may become too afraid to talk at all. Bullying may be too high of a price to pay for the child to express himself.

Dr. Iverach, in taking the problem to its logical conclusion has the following recommendation. She suggests that speech therapy to correct the stuttering while undoubtedly necessary, may not be sufficient — the child who stutters needs treatment for the growing social anxiety that will invariably be suffered as collateral damage.

In other words, the concerned parent must address the psychological facet of stuttering in tandem with the speech problem. In most cases, this will mean some type of mental health therapy as well to address the related psychological issues of the child.

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