Coping responses by adults who stutter, Part 2

This article is a summary and review, of the following article:
Article: Coping responses by adults who stutter: Part 2. Approaching the problem and achieving agency
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 second of two parts. The first part investigated 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. This resulted in emotion-based coping methods that involved avoidance and withdrawal. The second part of the research, presented here,  looks at the characteristics of self-focused and action oriented coping responses. This response involves moving towards a more cognitive based approach where the speaker focuses on his or her own needs, and not worry about what the listener is thinking.

Coping with stress

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? The two parts to this paper seek to identify a pattern of coping responses.

Approach vs. Avoidance

One thing that influences which coping mechanism a person uses is the extent to which they feel they have control over things in his/her life. This is called “locus of control”. Those who tend to see their fates determined by outside forces will not have much faith that they can do things to remedy their situation. Those who feel that they have the power to control their own lives would also, as stutterers, see themselves as capable of attaining a degree of fluency.

The cognitive based approach to dealing with a problem is more analytical, and involves defining the problem, weighing solutions, and seeking a course of action. This is quite different from the more emotional approach where the subject worries more about what others think than his/her own needs and tends to avoid stressful situations.

The research distinguishes between “short-term” and “long-term” stressors. A “short-term” stressor is a unique situation that arises sporadically, such as giving directions to a cab driver. In this case, an emotional decision may be the best course of action. But if the person had to frequently take taxis (long-term stressor) then avoidance becomes a dysfunctional response and leads to escapism, self-blame and disengagement.


Many things effect how a person decides to cope with stress. A person’s commitment and beliefs is important. As mentioned earlier one’s “locus of control” would  be one thing that determines his/her self-efficacy. What is important or meaningful to them is another thing: if they value personal relationships and friendships, they are more likely to want to communicate with others. On the other hand, if they are introverted and value “alone-time” and their own emotional independence, they might not see a cognitive based approach as worth the effort.

Another factor is the characteristics of the situation at hand. Is it a novel situation, or a common occurrence? What is the duration of the situation? What is the level of social support available at that time? Do they know the people present, or are they strangers? All these things are factors in how a person chooses to cope with a problem.

We are not our stuttering

All the participants in the study agreed that breaking out of patterns of hiding and escape helped to “improve self-concept, broaden perspective and recognize capabilities”. With age and maturity, as they found skills and made accomplishments in life, they were able to “interpret stuttering as a less prominent characteristic” of themselves. This process, of separating the SELF from the STUTTERING, is a major step in cognitive coping with the problem. Before a person finds their footing in adulthood and develops abilities and talents, stuttering can be all-consuming, and predominate in the small world of a child. Gradually, the disability becomes less of a defining thing in one’s life.

It’s possible, if stuttering is too wrapped up in a person’s identity, that it is hard to detach from the problem, as it is “too much of a change in identity.” If the subject is more detached from the problem (easier for some people than others) change is all the more possible.

It's not about the listener

Another thing that helped, according to the participants, was to focus less on the needs of the listener. It is possible that being overt about stuttering might make some listeners uncomfortable, but in the study five out of nine subjects acknowledged that it was beneficial and reduced pressure on them to hide their stuttering. This didn’t necessarily reduce the stuttering, but did help the emotions surrounding it.

Who's the boss?

Another thing that helped, according to the participants, was to be assertive and “taking own responsibility for change.”  All of them found it was beneficial to “seek information” about the problem, and  knowledge about the nature of it helped their confidence levels as they worked on overcoming patterns of avoidance. Friends, family and religious institutions also provided support, as well as – to detrimental effect – negative influences such as street gangs.

Less than perfect

As one major step in dealing in a more effective way with their stuttering, more than half the participants found it necessary to abandon the idea of achieving total fluency in their speech. To some degree, stuttering would always be a part of their lives; and accepting this helped them to accept themselves, and they were less demoralized by minor set-backs in life as a result. In fact, it even brought some positive aspects of stuttering to their attention; more depth as a person, the building of character, empathy and compassion towards others.


Many people who stutter discover that patterns of avoidance and withdrawal come at a cost to their overall quality of life. To approach the problem rather than avoiding it resulted in greater confidence, increased self-esteem, enhanced social life and generally better quality of life.