Wednesday 21 August 2019

How should I deal with my son's speech issues?

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Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I am seeking your advice regarding my 10-year-old boy. When he was younger, he had issues with the use of the muscle in his tongue with certain sounds and words. We took him to speech and language classes for a while until the issue was resolved. Presently he is not pronouncing his words with 'ing' a lot of the time and sometimes he has a tendency to speak muffled or too fast. When I ask him to repeat what he has just said or slow down he repeats it completely clear. Should I continue correcting him or get a third party involved again?

David replies: Before I reply to the substance of your query I  want to be clear, I am not an expert in children's speech, either in diagnosing speech and language difficulties, or in offering intervention strategies. So, please do take my comments below in the context of psychological rather than speech and language advice.

As I understand your enquiry, you are worried that previous speech and language difficulties your son had ­- relating to the muscles in his tongue - may be re-surfacing? You are noticing difficulties with his pronunciation of words and with the quality of his expression of those words.

It may be the case that he simply doesn't pay enough conscious attention to his speech, such that he muffles his words, or speaks too quickly to be intelligible. The fact that you have already noticed that when you bring his attention to how he is speaking, then he can successfully adjust his speech such that he speaks more slowly and clearly, does suggest he may not be attending to his speech enough.

This is a common enough problem, and not just for children. Many of us form habits in our pronunciation or the fluency of our speech that can make it hard for others to understand us. Naturally, our own speech habits tend to be quite subconscious, as we are as likely to be attending to the thought we are trying to express, as much as the way in which we are expressing it.

For example, when I began to do more public speaking I became aware that I had some potentially annoying speech habits (such as regularly repeating the words "d'you know?" in every sentence or every second sentence). This never bothered me, but was quite annoying for others to have to listen to, as the words had no function other than being a kind of "filler", like the equivalent to an "emm…"

It was only when I listened to myself speak on camera, or on radio, that I even noticed I was doing it. Attending a voice coach helped me to sustain my awareness of what I was saying and I was able to correct and avoid saying it. Taking my habit out of my subconscious and making it conscious was key.

For your son, you already see that making him conscious of how he is speaking allows him to correct it, such that he becomes easier to understand. They key in drawing his awareness to how he speaks is to be very clear that you are not criticising his speech, just noticing it.

In the reminders you might give him, it is the implied criticism, that may come from a cross or critical tone of voice that you might use, that could affect his self-esteem or his self-confidence. Simply giving him information to help him to express himself more clearly, shouldn't be an issue.

I presume when you mention getting a "third party involved again" that you are wondering if you should bring him back to meet a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) again?

If that is indeed what you mean, then I think it would make good sense to bring him back to an SLT to get an updated opinion on his speech fluency and expressive language.

Naturally you can't predict the outcome of the assessment that the SLT will carry out. It may be that your son has no real language difficulty per se, or, alternatively, that there are issues with his production of speech, either in terms of pronunciation or rushing to express himself.

No matter the outcome, however, you'll be in a much better position to know how best to help him. So, in answer to your question I think you should do both.

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