Icebergs and ice cubes – the value of discussing stuttering with children and teenagers

19 Jul
16 Jan

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This paper and accompanying video promotes the idea that stuttering is like an iceberg; some of it you can see, some of it you can’t see.  Talking about talking can be difficult; drawing an iceberg with a young person who stutters opens up an opportunity for them to express feelings around stuttering.  This can have benefits of feeling more comfortable and more open about stuttering, and this can lessen the impact that stuttering can have.

The teenager’s view – Bevin Murphy

I’m Bevin and I am going to talk to you about the iceberg.

Stuttering is like an iceberg you can see and hear some parts of stuttering but a lot more of it is hidden like thoughts and feelings.

There are 2 parts to an iceberg, the smaller part on top and the bigger part under the water.

When you are young it can hard to talk about stammering and what it feels like but you can draw your stuttering iceberg. You can look back and see how it changes over time. You can pick things you want to work on and change.

Change your attitude, change your stammering.

Thank you for listening.

The speech and language therapist’s view – Jonathon Linklater

Dr. Joseph Sheehan described adult stuttering to be like an iceberg “with the major portion below the surface. What people see and hear is the smaller portion; far greater, and more dangerous and destructive, is that which lies below the surface, experienced as fear, guilt, and anticipation of shame.” (Sheehan, 1970)

As children who stutter grow older, their awareness of their speech difficulties and associated feelings can develop, resulting in their stuttering icebergs growing larger.  Talking about talking can be difficult at the best of times; if a child is stuttering and struggling with speech then discussion of how they feel can be made more difficult.  A visual representation can give a child the opportunity to look at stuttering differently.

Drawing the iceberg

Drawing an iceberg is an easy way to get a child to be more open about their stuttering, and how it affects them.  Clearly the usefulness of this exercise depends on the awareness of the child and should be done with parental or professional discretion.  Children aged 6/7 and upwards who have been stuttering for a couple of years might find this exercise useful.  With these younger children you can draw some faces to represent any stuttering behaviours, or any of the feelings associated with stuttering.  Older children might prefer to use words in their iceberg.

According to Sheehan, the portion of the iceberg above the surface of the water comprises observable, primary stuttering behaviours.  These could be repetitions (“ca-ca-can I go there?”), prolongations (“wwwwwhere is it?”) or blocks and struggle.  Some of the struggle with talking may also be more visible, with facial tension or a child blushing.  Eye contact may also be lost.

Below the surface are some of the more hidden aspects of stuttering.  Secondary aspects of stuttering could include feelings around stuttering such as being embarrassed, feeling nervous, changing words around and avoiding words and situations.

Therapeutic context

In avoidance reduction therapy, clients are encouraged to look at the stuttering more closely, to analyse behaviours and feelings and change them both.  Clients are shown that, with courage, stuttering can be approached, fears can diminish, and the act of speaking handled more comfortably.  Discussion of stuttering, what it is and what it is not can be part of the therapy.  An opportunity to name the feelings and reflect on them with a therapist and others who stutter (and those who don’t) can have therapeutic benefit.

Adults I have worked with in therapy have reflected that if they had the chance to talk about their stuttering feelings at an early age, then possibly they would have grown up with less negativity and stigma around stuttering.

When is a problem not a problem?

Parents sometimes ask if discussing the stuttering could make it worse.  Is it drawing more attention to something that need not be discussed?  I suggest using parental judgement on that.  Questions should not be leading (e.g. “How do you feel about talking?” as opposed to “Do you feel bad about talking?”), of course there can be prompting but try not to use emotive language.  It may be the case that the child may not have a problem with their stuttering, it might be a parent who is more concerned about current perceived difficulties, or what might happen in the future.  As a parent you may learn that there are fewer concerns than initially feared.


Children generally do not have as many negative feelings about stuttering as adults; their icebergs may be less complex.  Some feelings may be inconsistent.  Their iceberg may be more like an ice cube on occasions; but that ice cube may still be big for a little person.  Icebergs can change over time; stuttering commonly does not remain the same. Some weeks it happens more, some weeks it happens less and this cycle repeats itself. It can be comforting for young people to know that the variability of their stuttering is normal and to be expected.

Sheehan wrote that “the portion of the iceberg exposed to the sunlight of public view melts away more quickly.” Icebergs may remain, but openness around stuttering can lead to easier navigation through these waters with less fear for all aboard.

The parent’s view – Veronica Lynch

As an adult who stammers my stammering and my attitude to it has changed over the years and keeps on changing, even now.

As a parent of a young person who stammers I have also seen my daughter Bevin’s stammer and her attitude to it change.

One of the things that has helped us both to change is the Iceberg.

Bevin always was, and still is, a sunny happy person and doesn’t tend to let things get her down, and she is determined not to let her stammer hold her back. But like all of us who stammer sometimes she doesn’t feel so good about it. When Bevin was small, maybe about 7 or 8, she got quite upset about stammering and asked me was God punishing her in some way by giving her a stammer. We talked about this for a little while and she was reassured that the reason she stammered wasn’t because she had done something bad.  A wise Speech and Language Therapist suggested I get her to do her stammering iceberg to help her, and me, understand her feelings about her speech.

So I sat down with her one day to do a fun activity, to draw and talk. We started talking about her stammer and her feelings and trying to fill in her iceberg but as she was so young she didn’t always know the words to describe her feelings but I hit upon the idea of using “smiley faces” instead of words. She could draw happy faces, sad faces, angry faces, worried faces, she could draw her face with cheeks red with embarrassment, she could draw other people laughing at her, she could draw herself blocking or repeating sounds. Over the years she and I have done this exercise quite a few times, as she got older and her vocabulary grew she needed to use the smiley faces less.  Sometimes however, there were feelings that couldn’t easily be put into words so our “smiley faces” still came in useful when it was easier to draw a feeling than explain a feeling. I have kept all the icebergs we drew, including my own, and it is interesting to see that feelings do change as we grow and develop as people and change our attitude to our speech.

I think the power of your child drawing their stammering iceberg with you is enormous.

It lets them acknowledge how they feel about stammering and recognise that not all feelings about their speech are bad e.g. Bevin thinks her stammer is cool because it has led her to make friends from around the country and around the world; something she may not have done if she didn’t have stammering in common with them.

It allows you, as a parent, to understand more about how they feel and show them that you understand how they might be feeling is a huge support for them. Even a parent who does not stammer can still say things like “I know what it is like to be worried about teasing, when I got glasses I was worried the kids in school would call me names”. Your child realises that you take their worries and concerns seriously. They are less likely to bottle up their feelings if they know you will listen and accept them.

It also gives you an opportunity to help them challenge some of their negative thoughts and beliefs e.g. if they think they can’t make friends you can talk about the activities they are involved in, the kids who live on their road that they play with or their cousins that they share things with. This is helpful in reducing their negative feeling around stammering and maybe also your own.

Looking at icebergs over time can be useful in helping young people see that even though they still stammer, how they stammer and how they react to it and feel about it can change.

Doing the iceberg with your child is a great way of getting to know your child better and means you can talk about their speech in a fun relaxed way where they may open up to you more than if you asked them directly about their speech.

It is also a great way to explain the complexities of stammering to siblings, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and friends who may not know much about stammering. Your child can enlist your support to help explain their stammer and this helps them feel less isolated.  The more understanding there is around stammering, the less negative impact the stammering can have.

So, I would suggest whether your child is young and only beginning to be able to express their feelings, or if they are a teenager and finding it difficult to share feelings, try spending 10 or 15 minutes doing his or her stammering iceberg, it is a great step to both of you understanding more about your child’s stammer.


Sheehan, Joseph G. (1970.) Stuttering: Research and Therapy. Harper and Row. NY

This article originally featured on the International Stuttering Association website in 2013 for International Stammering Awareness Day (

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