4        Passing On A Problem


“My husband and I are very happy with our baby of nine months who is beautiful and lovely and progressing at a normal rate. I enjoy him enormously except for a deep worry I have that is gradually beginning to cast a shadow. Both my husband and I stammer. A while ago, I listened to a speech therapist on the radio discussing a hereditary factor in stammering. I am worried about this. I know that children mimic and that many go through a normal stammering phase as they are trying to master language. Penelope Leach and Miriam Stoppard both state that parental or adult anxiety about this phase are detrimental and can largely contribute towards turning the phase into a lasting problem. I want to know how I can dispel the shadow and deal positively with any speech problems if they occur. If I can guide him towards fluent, articulate speech it will be the best thing I can ever do for them.”

Mrs D.C.


When a famous beauty suggested to George Bernard Shaw that a child of theirs would be blessed with beauty and brains, he apparently commented “But what if the child had my beauty and your brains?” As parents we hope our children will inherit only the best of our inner and outer qualities but this is almost impossible. Now there certainly are a small number of children noticeable for their rare ability to pick out and develop positive attributes from largely unloving parents. Other children, again a small sample, are noticeable for their unerring accuracy in selecting everything destructive or damaged in largely loving parents. Individual personality, noticeable from birth, plays a large part.


 However, for the majority of children, the good and bad is taken in indiscriminately. For babies and small children are not born with the ability to sift out what is healthy or unhelpful. They take in everything through love and identification and struggle to make sense of their inheritance. As they grow they make additions and subtractions of their own. This task takes a lifetime and is shared by every human being! As parents we certainly have a responsibility for trying to check repetitions and characteristics of a hurtful kind that we have transmitted or are in danger of transmitting .


Because of the long time it takes for the human infant to grow up there is time for parents to think about the next stage and how their vulnerabilities will affect their parenting. A parent with an eating problem might be either excessively permissive over food or extra punitive, not knowing in themselves the healthy medium. If the other parent does not share the same problem their support might be particularly valuable. This requires openly discussing and sharing the problem. Otherwise, insights can deteriorate into “Your daughter sulks all day like someone else I know” or “Your son can’t make any friends. Guess where he gets that from?” The unshared problem can then be hated in the adult and the child who shares it. Where the parent cannot bear a certain characteristic in themselves the sight of it in the child is like a raw wound and this inevitably leads to serious problems.


Sometimes, the feared characteristic is timed to appear at a certain stage, a stammer when learning to talk, a feeding problem at 2, a social problem at 5, an academic problem at 9, a problem with aggression at 13,a sexual problem at 17. Characteristics have their own expected dates of birth and it is very important that like Mrs D.C. parents think carefully about these so they can prepare themselves.


Now Mr and Mrs D.C. have the problem that they both share a particular characteristic that they don’t want to pass on. Where two partners have a difficulty and therefore cannot compensate for each other it is not surprising that they are anxious. Books that tell people not to be anxious are not helpful as they imply people have the choice as to whether to be or not! There is a further problem with books. Parents wanting to be punished for a difficulty will seek out a book that blames them. Parents who are uncertain will seek out books with conflicting advice. Mrs D.C. has already done some reading. However, it is still worth pointing out that Dr. Fay Fransella conducted a major review on stammering research at the Institute of Psychiatry. She found no evidence that there was any major genetic determinant and her twenty years of work on stammering and stuttering since have not changed her mind. At her Centre for Personal Construct Psychology she welcomes referrals from concerned parents and knows, as do all psychodynamic workers, that emotions and fears can be transmitted as powerfully as genes.


Mrs DC feels that having her baby speak fluently will be the best thing she can do for him. Her fear about this shadow in her life is so powerful that her love for her baby and what that will give him seems secondary to her hope for his fluent speech. This is indeed a burden for her, and as her baby begins to make more sounds, the worry could pass on to him. It may well be that Mr and Mrs DC do not have time for enough personal treatment that could affect their stammering dramatically re their baby talks.


However, they do have time for some exploratory family meetings to discuss their fears. For the personal difficulties we have and may (or may not) be able to deal with at different stages in our parenting lives are one thing; but our awareness and understanding of them are another. Mrs D.C. does not say if she has referred herself to her local speech therapist. As well as checking for any rare neurological difficulty, speech therapists are growing more aware of the emotional issues connected with speech problems.


Individual or family therapy is also worth considering.