With many researchers documenting the risk of poor self-esteem and social interaction in kids with speech and communication difficulty, parents often wonder what they can do to help their child’s confidence and social skills. It’s extra confusing at times, because you want to help your child improve their communication skills, but don’t want to feel like you’re correcting them all the time, in part because you’re worried you may make them feel bad. This article highlights a few ways we, as adults in the lives of kids with speech difficulty, can help improve communication while also boosting self-esteem.
Self-esteem issues arising from speech difficulty may look different at different ages
First of all, speech and language development is a process with a wide range of what’s considered “normal.” For many toddlers and preschool aged kids, their entire peer group is still in the developmental stage of learning speech and language. Plus, kids younger than 6 or 7 typically aren’t at a social development age where they think to compare themselves to others. As a result, you typically don’t have to worry about low self-esteem in very young kids.
However, we do want to be aware of some of the early types of success we want kids to experience with communication in an effort to lay the groundwork for positive feelings about speaking to others. As a general rule of thumb, we expect that kids will begin to use words to express themselves around their first birthday. And, by around age 4, we expect kids to be understood basically all of the time. This means that from age 1 to 4, we’re watching kids make the shift to using verbal speech as their main strategy for expressing wants and needs.
So what happens if kids are struggling to do this? A lot of young kids may start getting frustrated when they can’t express themselves. For some little ones, this can mean tantrums or demonstrating other attention seeking behavior. We want kids to feel positive about communication, so with very young kiddos, we can help kids experience success from communication by offering choices or implementing signs or picture support along with communication attempts. These aids don’t reduce the likelihood of kids using oral language—they increase it! By giving kids tools to express their wants and needs, we’re creating a positive interaction, which will make them more likely to want to engage again in the future.
Taking some of the stress off of young kids’ communication attempts can be functional and give enough motivational boost to help practice speech and language skills. We can guide young kids’ communication and speech skills in play based activities where we model correct production and create fun incentives for them to try skills. If you’re not sure about how to help boost speech skills in a young child, check out our post on speech sound work in these littlest age groups.
For older kids in elementary school years and into middle school and high school, they’ve likely entered into a social development state where they’re more aware of how they’re own skills measure up to their peers. They may have experienced negative effects of having speech difficulty, and may have developed negative feelings about speech or speech therapy. Kids who have begun to experience negative self-esteem caused by their speech difficulty may need some extra support from adults.
Self-esteem issues among kids with speech difficulty may be situational
Recent research highlights that kids with speech difficulty who have self-esteem issues may have very specific communication concerns. In fact, it may be the case that the self-esteem concerns related to speech difficulty are only experienced in certain speaking situations, like talking to strangers or talking at school, but not when communicating with close friends or family. The good news here is that kids may not experience stress when communicating all the time. Plus, other research has suggested that positive social relationships build positive self-esteem over time. So, fostering a positive and close social bond with your child, and encouraging positive friendships, can help boost their self-esteem and also give them a positive space for communicating without anxiety.
When combating situational self-esteem issues for kids, it’s important to bring in teachers and other adults in the community where your child may be experiencing stress. Children who have experienced bullying or who feel anxious about their communication difficulty may be more hesitant to speak in front of a large class group to read out loud or answer a question. Strategies like encouraging small group work, or helping a student with speech difficulty practice a class presentation, can help ease anxiety around situational speaking tasks. Talk with your child’s teacher and school speech-language pathologist to troubleshoot how to address their needs.
Additionally, helping kids with speech difficulty get exposure to a wide range of activities can help them find their niche, and give them outlets for building self-esteem in other domains of life. Helping find activities your child excels in can be a great way to boost self-esteem while they’re working on speech skills.
Be aware of negative portrayals of speech difficulty or disabilities in the media
Even with the push for more accountability for diversity and representation of individuals with disabilities, it’s important to be mindful that individuals with speech difficulty are not always presented in a positive light in media depictions. Characters with a speech sound error may be cast as quirky or comical, and physical differences may be associated with villains. Talk with your kids and family members about why these characterizations are hurtful, and look for positive stories about individuals with differences.
Practice empathy for your child or loved one’s perspective
I’ve had many conversations with teenagers who have come to accept their speech sound differences as being a part of their identity. While we can improve a developmental speech sound disorder at any stage of life, it’s important to be respectful of the unique experiences that each child has had as an individual with persistent speech difficulty. For teenagers and adults who have speech sound disorders, changing these habits takes time, energy, and focus. That sort of buy-in can’t be forced, and so if your child is telling you they’re happy with the way they sound, maybe a break from therapy isn’t a bad idea. If they’re telling you they’ll “just get a job where they don’t have to talk to anyone”—maybe some deeper conversations are in order. In the first example, the young adult is expressing that they’re okay with having speech differences and they may have good reasons for wanting to focus on other things. In the second example, the young adult is expressing a shift in expectations for themself as a result of having a speech difference, and may end up harboring resentment for choices they felt they had to make. Try to understand where your loved one is coming from without judgement.
Speech therapy can help boost self-esteem by giving kids a safe place to practice
In over a decade working as a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I’ve seen how quickly kids begin to learn what’s hard for them to do. And, it’s human nature to shy away from tasks that feel challenging. So, a huge part of speech therapy, especially for kids or teenagers who have persistent speech sound disorders or who haven’t experienced much success in therapy in the past, is to tackle their “I just can’t do it” mindset.
We do this in two ways. The first is by making sure they’re having fun when they practice. This goes back to our goal with young kids, to making sure they experience positive communication exchanges. For some kids who have been in therapy for a long time, they’ve learned that therapy is a series of boring, hard tasks. It doesn’t have to be this way! If kids are having fun, they’re more ready to learn, and more likely to feel positive about their experience. And, they’ll be more excited to talk, which is kind of the whole point.
Second, speech therapy for speech sound disorders works by following principles of motor learning. In this approach, the child works up a series of increasingly complex tasks until they’ve learned a new motor plan, or new speech habit, for the sounds they struggle with. The great thing about this approach is that it not only works, but it works through success. By this, I mean we work at a level where a child is likely to be successful with the activities, which in turn helps them start to feel like a speech Rockstar. We can also avoid pitfalls like empty praise, which can be exhausting for kids, by instead giving really specific feedback, like “I love how well you’re using your tongue tip sounds today!”
Kids with speech difficulty are kids first—and some kids may need help with self-esteem
Finally, it’s important to remember that mental health should be a priority in all of our lives, and that includes kids and adults who have speech difficulty. While speech therapy is a great place to troubleshoot communication specific challenges and self-esteem issues, sometimes a person may be experiencing self-esteem issues across a wide variety of life circumstances, or have more far reaching depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Chatting with your family doctor about your concerns can be a good way to start, and they can help route you to a social worker or psychologist.
Have questions about how to best help your child with speech difficulty improve their speech skills to grow into a confident communicator? Head over to our Articulation Therapy page to read about how Verboso works for treatment of speech sound disorders, or check out our Therapy Services page to read more about our solutions for speech therapy.