Young girl holding a book When Joe Biden is inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, the United States will have a leader who stutters. As a young child, Biden was bullied for stuttering. In high school, he began to overcome it. Biden’s political opponents at times have made fun of his stuttering by falsely claiming he doesn’t know or can’t remember what he’s talking about.

Most children who stutter are probably aware of the fact that talking is sometimes hard. Parents and caregivers can feel unsure of how to respond if their child stutters. Joseph Donaher, PhD, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), offers facts about the disorder and advice for caregivers.

Facts about stuttering

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Stuttering is a neurological disorder that affects the timing and sequence of speech. It generally results in a repetition, prolongation or “getting stuck” when producing a sound. Stuttering usually begins between 2 and 5 years of age, when speech and language skills develop. It affects boys more often than girls. As many as 5 percent of children will stutter for six months or more. Most of them will recover by late childhood.

Stuttering affects roughly 70 million people, with about 3 million of them in the United States. Along with Biden, that group includes actors James Earl Jones and Emily Blunt, recording artists Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar, and NBA player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Should I acknowledge my child’s stuttering?

If your child stutters, you should feel comfortable talking about it in a way that is appropriate for your child’s age. You want to acknowledge the difficulty while emphasizing that you care more about what your child is saying than how they are saying it. You can say something like: “When kids are learning to put words together, sometimes talking is really hard. It seemed like that was tough to get out.” Here are more tips for talking to your child about stuttering.

What to do when speaking to someone who stutters

  • Don’t finish their sentences for them.
  • Don’t tell them it’s OK or give advice such as “slow down” or “relax.”
  • Listen to what is being said, not how it’s being said.
  • Maintain eye contact and other body language to provide positive feedback.

When to seek professional help

If your child gets upset about struggling to speak, if it lasts more than six months, and if people outside your household clearly notice the difficulty, you might consider getting an evaluation. Seek out a speech-language pathologist who specializes in children and who has clinical experience working with children who stutter. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia’s Stuttering Program offers highly specialized diagnostic and therapeutic services to children who stutter and their families. Stuttering is not “cured,” per se, but a speech-language pathologist can offer approaches that help children become better communicators.

Joseph Donaher, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an academic and research program coordinator, an adjunct, assistant professor, and a speech-language pathologist who works with the Department of Speech-Language Pathology, and the Center for Childhood Communication at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.