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Living with a sibling who stutters

This is a review of the article from the Journal of Fluency Disorders, issue 37, 2012, "The experiences of living with a sibling who stutters: a preliminary study", pgs 135-148, Janet M. Beilby, Michelle l.Byrnes, Kate N. Young. This review was originally published in the summer 2012 issue of CSA Voices.

brother

This study explores the sibling relationship when one of those siblings stutters, from the point of view of the non-stuttering sibling.

In previous studies the focus has been primarily on the effect of having a stuttering child on the parents, and the relationship between parents and that child. Even in studies of family-centred therapy, the feelings and opinions of a non-stuttering sibling has not been explored.

Methodology

The study consisted of both one-on-one interviews with the non-stuttering sibling and filling out a questionnaire on the part of the fluent child, the CWS, and the parents.

Participating in the study were twelve sets of siblings in which one child stuttered, and twelve sets where no child stuttered that served as the control group. In all but two of the first group, the stuttering sibling was younger.

Two experienced speech pathologists assessed the stuttering sibling to guage the severity of the disfluency, which was factored into the results.

During the interviews with the fluent sibling, they were asked questions such as “How do you feel when your brother/sister has these difficulties (stutters)?”, “What do your parents do to try and help your brother/sister with their talking?”, What do you do?”, “How do you think your brother’s/sister’s talking difficulties affect how well you get along?”. The children were always encouraged to expand on their answers or clarify if they felt like it.

Results

Most of the siblings reported being used to the sibling’s stuttering, as well as often receiving less parental attention than the stuttering child.

Most of the fluent children had some understanding of how the disorder would affect the other child’s life in the future. One girl (10 yrs) was concerned that her brother (5 yrs) might not be well understood by other adults when he was older, and specifically that he would have trouble buying a house and getting a job.

The fluent children also described their siblings as being upset by his/her stuttering, and being annoyed at being interrupted and asked to repeat. They knew part of the reason was because of teasing by other kids.

According to almost half of the fluent siblings, stuttering did not effect the relationship with their brother or sister.  But the remainder described some negative repurcussions. Usually it was a feeling of sadness for the other child. “I am sad when he is sad because he does a bump,” said one. Sometimes they were annoyed and frustrated with the sibling’s stuttering and even embarrassed by it.

Family involvement

There were also positive ways the relationship was impacted. Many of the siblings felt constructive being able to help the other, and pride when there was improvement in his/her speech.

The majority of siblings (66%) felt they were involved in the family therapy programme. They wanted to be even more involved so they could help more.

A ten-year old girl of a six year old boy who stuttered stated “Sometimes I make him happy when he is sad and I say don’t worry and it will be okay and you know how to fix it and just repeat it again.”

For those who were not involved in the therapy, they expressed no desire to be involved. The younger the fluent child was, the more likely s/he would be involved in the therapy. In all cases where the child was involved in the treatment process, this involvement strengthened the bond between the two children.

Interestingly, the extent and nature of the sibling’s reaction to his/her stuttering sibling was independent of the severity of that sibling’s stuttering. In other words, a child with more severe stuttering did not elicit more negative or extreme emotions in a sibling than the more mild stutterers.

The majority (75%) of the siblings had discussed the other child’s stuttering with their parents. But these discussions focused on how to help the stuttering child, rather than on the feelings the sibling had towards it.

The perception that the stuttering child got more parental attention was reported by half of the siblings. One child felt that the stuttering sibling was allowed to interrupt and was listened to more attentively.

From the results of the questionnaire, researchers concluded that although the siblings where one child stuttered generally described more closeness, there was also more conflict, and more indications of sibling rivalry than from the control group. This was a result of the “status disparity” that existed for the non-stuttering sibling, that the stuttering child got more attention from the parents. But the sibling also rationalized it with statements like “I’m used to it” and “it’s his time”.

From the researchers: “Communication regarding participation and responsibility for all family members emerged as an important clinical objective.” If the fluent sibling is involved with the therapy process, the situation should be monitored for any negative impact. Parents tended to assume that the fluent sibling had less trouble coping and could deal with a deficit of attention.

Conclusion

This research study can increase the efficiency of family led therapy where one of the children in the family stutters. It emphasizes the importance of addressing the feelings and needs of all members of the family during the therapy process. Subsequent studies in this area might explore the factors with children of different ages, with a higher number of children who are younger than their stuttering sibling, and the impact of the childrens’ respective genders on the research findings. Also, adult siblings could “offer a lifelong perspective” on the implications of having a brother or sister who stuttered.

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