I watched proudly as my 3-year-old daughter pronounced the syllables in the word “banana” without any difficulty or hesitation. She used side-to-side movement to help her sound out its parts. “Ba”—step to the left; “na”—step to the right; “na”—step to the left again.
A few weeks ago, we began working with a speech therapist and have already seen encouraging results. I sat in on a session last week, during which her therapist gave plenty of smart tips and tricks to improve her speaking ability. One method had my daughter using physical motion—clapping, stepping, marching, hopping, high-fiving, or whatever is the most fun for her—to guide syllable breakdown with her more troublesome words, such as “banana.”
It was such a simple exercise to implement. I thanked our therapist, saying this was something I could easily do with her at home. Her therapist agreed, noting its simplicity is what makes it such an effective tool, especially for younger children like my daughter. She explained the addition of action while sounding out a word helps to bridge a disconnect between the brain and mouth. In other words, we can retrain speech by breaking or interrupting flawed patterns.
When it comes to parenthood, I find I, too, have flawed patterns of thought—particularly about how my children are a reflection of personal success or failure as a person. This has recently manifested as internalized shame over my daughter’s speech delay. And that’s painful for me to admit.
As a person with a chronic illness, I understand imposing judgment on things over which we have little or no control is problematic in a myriad of ways, and because of this, I’ve learned how to adjust expectations and emotions when it comes to my health. I thought, perhaps naively, it would be natural for me to extend this same rationale to my children’s adversities.
I’ve had some success, for example, managing personal blame when it comes to my toddler son, just shy of 18 months, who has battled severe eczema since he was a newborn. I can rationalize the likely genetic factors, understand the impact of food allergies, and feel comforted by the steps we’ve taken to identify and treat his issues. My internal sense of culpability is spared because, for better or worse, there’s nothing we could have done to prevent it. However, with regards to my daughter’s speech disorder, it feels like a personal failure that she struggles with language. Have I been too liberal with screen time? Am I paying enough attention to her developmental milestones? Should I be reading more parenting books? Did I wait too long to take action?
I’m not certain when it struck me her speech might be lagging behind her peers’. It can be challenging to determine what is considered ‘normal’ communication ability, especially when it comes to young children for whom speech is a relatively new skill. Even more challenging, at least speaking to my own experience, is grappling with the (very false!) notion that ‘abnormal’ also somehow means ‘defective’ or ‘insufficient.’ My husband and I went back and forth over the possibility of a delay, leading to many tense, emotional conversations. Because our daughter could talk—albeit with difficulty in some areas—and had very little trouble understanding, we weren’t sure if the mispronounced words and syllable mix-ups were cute toddler babble or indicative of a speech disorder. So, a few months ago when her school brought in a speech pathologist for hearing and speech screenings, I knew that having her evaluated was the appropriate choice to make.
According to recent statistics, speech delays affecting preschool-aged children are not uncommon; for the 3-6-year-old age range, 11% present with language, speech, voice, and swallowing disorders, and is the largest group under age 17 to display communication abnormalities. For my almost 4-year-old to be part of this statistic is by no means an indicator that I haven’t done my job as a parent. So, why, then, has it been such a challenge for me to shake the lingering guilt?
This brings me back to our session with the speech therapist. While meant to help guide my daughter through tricky words, the logic she shared—that pattern disruption retrains and corrects processes—can be applied to my problematic thoughts. Instead of blaming myself for the things I can’t control, I can use that emotional energy to create a loving, supportive environment for my children. Instead of internalizing guilt, I can seek out the best tools and resources for managing adversities. Instead of worrying that my children, or myself, are somehow “less than,” I can love them, and myself, more. I can always, always love more.
As I clap, high-five, jump, and fist-bump my way through words with my daughter, and revel in the pride she shows when she correctly pronounces a challenging word, it serves as a reminder that any pattern can be changed—you just have to utilize the tools diligently and mindfully to do so. And now, I choose to use that simple, but effective wisdom from our speech therapist to reshape my own.