Coping methods and strategies of people who stutter, part 1

Lisa Wilder

This article is a summary and review of:
Article: Coping responses by adults who stutter: Part 1. Protecting the self and others
From the Journal of Fluency Disorders, Vol. 34, 2009, 87-107
Authors: Laura W. Plexico, Walter H. Manning, Heidi Levitt
The primary purpose of this study was to understand the range of speakers’ coping responses to the stress of stuttering. Also pertinent was the impact that these various responses have on one’s daily life.


Seven men and two women were recruited as participants, diverse in age and backgrounds, but all people who were coping with stuttering. They were asked a series of questions during interviews to determine what they were coping with and how well they are coping. The interviews were taperecorded and transcribed, and the data was analyzed and categorized.

This paper is the first of two parts. The first part investigates how people who stutter seek to protect both themselves from listeners’ reactions to their stuttering and the listener from experiencing discomfort because of the stuttering. The second part, which will be reviewed in the next issue of this newsletter, looks at the characteristics of self-focused and action oriented coping responses.

Coping with stress in general

For some PWS the impact caused by stuttering in their lives is minimal, for others it is debilitating. Some choose therapy and some don’t, some confront the problem head-on and others withdraw and escape. This article quotes studies that show few adults actually seek treatment and many who do drop out. So how do PWS cope, if it is not generally through therapy?

Any coping response begins with a person’s appraisal of the situation, and of their own resources to deal with it.
Those who cope better with stuttering are people who are more motivated to take control of his/her own life, who can better manage negative experiences.

Categorization into “CLUSTERS” of meaning

From the data obtained during interviews with the seven subjects, four “clusters” of meaning were developed, or issues pertinent to the coping responses of PWS. This paper (Part 1) addresses the first two clusters, that “address methods of escape as a coping response.”

Problem-focused functions – demonstrates how PWS strategize ways to prevent aversive communicative situations, striving to protect themselves and the listener.

Emotion-focused functions – describes methods of escape often used to provide protection in the form of relief and control.

Most people in the study used the emotion-focused methods of coping and, throughout the years, had established “consistent patterns of escape and avoidance”, even when these techniques lost there effectiveness. With time, the subjects realized the sacrifice they were making to their quality of life and over-all sense of well being when they were consistently unengaged with the world and people around them. Even then, it seemed impossible to abandon its use.
The reasons why PWS choose methods of escape over directly confronting the problem is obvious: in the short run, it is easier. Two factors influenced this choice: concern for the listener’s benefit and the speaker’s degree of self acceptance. The more the speaker wanted to protect the listener from awkward situation, the more they used escape as a method of coping. For instance, seven of the nine participants identified with the statement: “To protect myself from hurt and the listener from a stressful interaction, I try to take the perspective of the listener and assume responsibility for putting him/her at ease.”

Seven of the nine participants also agreed that they had to make a deliberate effort, when it was their turn to talk, not to feel pressure to speak immediately, and to pause or take a breath to gain composure before starting to speak.

The self and others

The paper refers to other previously published research papers that address, from a psychological perspective, the meaning systems and identity structures people construct for themselves, also a coping mechanism. One’s stuttering becomes a key factor that distinguishes him or her from others. The world is divided into fluent and non-fluent speakers, or rather, the “self/not self”. To be fluent “lacks meaningfulness”, while stuttering becomes imbedded as a distinguishing characteristic. Nevertheless, it is more desireable to be a “fluent speaker”. This discrepancy, what one sees themself as being and what they want to be, results in “ a self-discontent, the result of which was low self-esteem, cognitive/affective discomfort, low levels of adjustment and reduced self-acceptance.”

The paper suggests that PWS somtimes start to see the world in very black/white terms, or fluent/not fluent. There exists no in-between world, no achievement without total fluency. Yet coping strategies would be assisted by better understanding the real, imperfect nature of the fluent speaker, and for the person who stutters to “decrease their dichotomous view of the self an others”. This would mean accepting that that there are levels of fluency, and, to some degree, all fluency is flawed. When people who stutter see themselves as categorically different from fluent speakers, in order to “cross over” to the other side they must achieve perfection or normal fluency.

Importantly, the article states “For the speaker to be able to accept and appreciate that enhanced communication and interaction skills, in spite of some disfluency, is a success in and of itself is a powerful and important step in the therapeutic process.”
This deconstruction of the stuttering role will encourage acceptance of the nature of the problem, rather than avoidance and denial.

Coping decisions are influenced by low self-acceptance and listener reactions, low self acceptance and negative emotions come out of a discrepancy between the real and ideal self, as they desire to be “like” the listener. Avoidance and escape are the main ways of coping, providing momentary relief. But these tactics result in emotional isolation and decreased quality of life.

In summary, this article describes the emotional/psychological conflicts that arise can arise in the life of a person who stutters, based on research of a small group. The insights in provides is interesting and useful to help those interested in moving forward with their lives, but may be finding it difficult.

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