Secondary Behaviors of Stuttering: How to Eliminate These Escape Behaviors.

Secondary Behaviors of Stuttering: How to Eliminate These Escape Behaviors.

Your stutter is multifaceted.

It encompasses those stereotypical stuttering behaviors: the sound repetitions, prolongations, speech blocks.  

It also encompasses thoughts and feelings, like shame, guilt, and anxiety.  

And it likely includes secondary behaviors or secondary characteristics of stuttering, the:

Eye blinking 

Jaw jerking 


Fist clenching 

Loss of eye contact. 

The list goes on.  

Though it might feel like these behaviors help you get words out, they really make your stuttering pattern tense, cumbersome, painful, and full of struggle.  

In this post, I will describe secondary behaviors and offer suggestions about how to identify and eliminate these behaviors from your stuttering pattern. 

What are stuttering secondary behaviors? 

We engage in secondary behaviors in an effort to control, escape, or avoid moments of stuttering.

Many children exhibit secondary behaviors almost as soon as they begin stuttering, before the child is ever exposed to the perspective that stuttering is bad.

For this reason, it seems these behaviors are a natural response to the unpleasant stuck feeling that is stuttering. After all, when you are stuck in other situations, it seems natural to push and struggle in an effort to become unstuck.

When we first started using these secondary behaviors, sometimes they worked to help us escape or avoid stuttering; so we continued using them.  

Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful thing. 

Some of us added more behaviors to our repertoire as our familiar behaviors proved less effective.

And as the years passed, we continued to use these behaviors to try to control, escape, and avoid moments of stuttering, despite the fact that they didn’t actually work very well or very often.  

These behaviors are habit-based and today they seem hardwired, out of our control, just another part of our stuttering pattern. 

We may not even be aware that we engage in them at all.

But, unlike our pure stuttering, secondary behaviors are voluntary.

Read on to learn how to change these knee-jerk reactions.

Secondary behaviors are voluntary behaviors

Now, we have no control over when a stutter will overtake us. But we do have some say regarding how the stutter is realized (Sheehan, 1998

We have options:

Option one: We could avoid situations and words and people because of fear of stuttering.

Option two: We could fight against stuttering moments with secondary behaviors.

Option three: We could allow ourselves to stutter. 

The first two options are our knee-jerk reactions to moments of stuttering. We instinctively avoid and escape. 

But avoiding situations and words and people because of stuttering is exhausting and leaves us feeling unfulfilled. We want to engage in these activities, interact with these people, say what we want to say! 

Fighting and struggling against stuttering with secondary behaviors is also tiring and creates tense moments of stuttering. These behaviors are distracting to our listeners, much more distracting than our pure stutter would be. 

Allowing ourselves to stutter is key.  

Change your response to stuttering. First steps: Self-monitoring  

Self-monitoring is vital in your stuttering journey. It’s near impossible to change a behavior if you have no idea what your baseline behavior looks like, right?

The first steps of therapy for many individuals involves a period of identification (Manning & Dilollo, 2018), of observing what you do while you stutter. 

This identification period includes observing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you engage in before, after, and during stuttering. 

It may be beneficial to separate your observations into two categories:

  • things I do while I stutter (This may include repetitions, prolongations and secondary behaviors)

During this period of identification, consider yourself a field researcher, a camera with your shutter set to open, a curious child, watching the world with new eyes and a fresh, unclouded perspective: 

You are observing without interfering, without trying to change or modify, and – most importantly – without judgement.  

When judgments come up – and they will come up – notice them as well, and attempt not to judge your judgments. 

This is difficult because you are used to qualifying stuttering behaviors as bad or really bad.  

You are used to reacting to these moments of stuttering on autopilot, retreating to some place inside yourself during these moments until you are safely on the other side.  

You are going to discover what you do while you stutter, and this realization will likely be uncomfortable to come to terms with.  

But that’s ok. Observe your discomfort and continue your field studies.  

What did you discover about your stuttering? 

What does your stutter look like? Do you re-re-repeat sounds, prooooolong sounds?  

What do your secondary behaviors look like? 

Do you block , try to push words out and find yourself unable to vocalize, unable to breath? 

I discovered: 

I stutter mostly with repetitions and sometimes with prolongations. 

I blink heavily and tap my fingers to escape moments of stuttering sometimes.  

I also drop eye contact during moments of stuttering and even during some islands of fluency. 

Over the years, my secondary behaviors have decreased a lot. But I still do them, probably multiple times a day, despite the fact that I consider myself pretty open about my stuttering. 

Several years back, my stuttering pattern was full of tension and struggle. 

I hardly stuttered out loud at all.  

Instead, I blinked heavily, tapped my fingers and feet, pushed and pushed and pushed until, eventually, I pushed words out.

I felt shame because my speech was so labored. It seemed I couldn’t say anything.  

But, really, I couldn’t say much fluently. 

Once I stopped trying to fight against my stutter and allowed my to stutter to happen, the tension in my speech melted away.  


These secondary behaviors were not just happening to me.  

I actively used them to fight against stuttering.

How do I change my response to stuttering? 

Now that you have been monitoring your stuttering, you know what you do while you stutter. 

 You know how you struggle.  

And you realized, maybe for the first time, how tense your stuttering pattern really is.  

So how do you reduce the tension and struggle?  

What do you do in the place of your secondary behaviors? 

First, choose one secondary behavior to target 

Maybe you discovered three or four behaviors. Aim to change one at a time.  

Next, choose a context or situation in which to practice 

Choose a place and time when you will attempt to change your response to your stuttering.

A comfortable situation is typically most appropriate. This could be while talking to a partner, friend, or family member in a low stress situation.  

You may want to tell your conversation partner your plan. This can reduce your anxiety about what they will think when you respond to your stutter in a different way than usual. 

Fun fact:

One of the principles of change common among a variety of stuttering treatment approaches is the recruitment of others’ support (Manning &Dilollo, 2018.)

It’s important for other people in your life to understand indicators of successful change so that they can be supportive of this change (Manning & Dilollo, 2018.)

Now, when you come up on a stutter, notice how you want to respond, then openly stutter instead

If you want to try to stop blinking heavily during moments of stuttering, you may keep your eyes open, look at your conversation partner in the eye, and openly stutter. 

If you tap your fingers or toes, consciously still your fingers and toes and openly stutter instead.  

How to openly stutter 

Openly stuttering is easier said than done. Some of us have been trying so hard to hide our stuttering that we don’t even know what our pure stuttering looks or feels like. 

Once you become desensitized to your stuttering and your feelings surrounding stuttering, letting go will be easier.   

But for now, you might need to use voluntary stuttering.

I wrote a whole post on voluntary stuttering. This practice, also called pseudostuttering, involves stuttering on purpose. 

And it might be just what you need to jump start your journey toward open stuttering. 

In this context, voluntary stuttering is simply a way to let out sound when you are stuck.

There are two basic ways to voluntarily stutter: prolongations or repetitions. You can read about these strategies in my post about moving through speech blocks.

Try one. Try the other. See which one is closest to your real stuttering. That’s likely the one that will yield the most success.  

Regardless of how you openly stutter, it will likely be easier to do so after you maintain eye contact with your listener. This also helps ground you and helps make you feel more confident.  

Open stuttering has a host of benefits 

For one, it helps us take on the role of a person who stutters (Sheehan, 1998) It has been theorized that fear of stuttering is caused, in part by trying to cover up the fact that we stutter, by the insecurity caused by posing as a fluent person (Sheehan, 1998).

By openly stuttering, we are no longer hiding our true selves. We are no longer pretending to be fluent people.

This openness leads to less fear and, in turn, less tension and easier, less frequent moments of stuttering (Sheehan, 1998)

Secondly, openly stuttering is a means of self-disclosure, or telling others that we stutter. Self-disclosure has been linked with higher quality of life (Boyle, Milewski & Beita-Ell, 2018).

Third, people who stutter have mentioned that disclosing stuttering, either telling people explicitly that they stutter or simply stuttering openly, has been linked to less fear and avoidance surrounding stuttering (Plexico, Dilollo, Manning, & 2005) and affords them a sense freedom (Plexico, et al., 2005).

Lastly, when we openly stutter, there is less ambiguity surrounding our speech. People now know that we aren’t shy or that we don’t have a tic causing us to jerk our heads or blink our eyes (not that there’s anything wrong with these things; but that is not what is going on!)

My views on secondary behaviors

Now, my views about secondaries are still evolving: 

I believe that at their core, secondary behaviors are escape and avoidance behaviors.

They likely started when we started stuttering. We likely continued to use them because they occasionally worked at getting us out of stuttering blocks. The world told us stuttering was bad and we internalized this stigma (Boyle, 2015) and continued to use these escape behaviors in a desperate attempt to stop stuttering. 

Secondary behaviors are essentially voluntary behaviors, so they don’t necessarily have to be part of the stuttering experience.

But many people who stutter do engage in these behaviors sometimes, regardless of how open they are about stuttering.

And I’ve seen, firsthand, toddlers just beginning to stutter who engage in secondary behaviors from the get-go.

Because of their universality, I believe these behaviors go hand in hand with the stuttering experience. 

I, like many others who stutter, feel stuttering is not good or bad, but just is (e.g. Constantino, 2018.) It’s just another characteristic, like the color of my hair or eyes.

It goes against this reasoning to pick and choose the elements of the stuttering experience that I deem acceptable and those I don’t.

If I’m going to embrace the experience of stuttering, I have to embrace all aspects of the stuttering experience.   

In short, although reducing secondary behaviors results in an easier, more open, more forward-moving stuttering pattern, we must be gentle and understanding with ourselves. We may never eradicate all secondary behaviors.

Just like we allow ourselves to stutter, we should allow ourselves to struggle sometimes too.  

How freeing it is to not try to be perfect all the time! 

Posts Related to Stuttering Secondary Behaviors

Help, I’m Stuck! How to Move Through Stuttering Blocks, Examples and Tips.

Voluntary Stuttering: This Powerful Tactic Will Improve Your Life

Self-Disclosure: A Powerful Tool for the Stutterer


Boyle, M. P., Milewski, K., Beita-Ell, C. (2018). Disclosure of stuttering and quality of life in people who stutter. Journal of  Fluency Disorders, 58 (4). 1-10. 

Boyle, M. P. (2015). The importance of challenging the public stigma of stuttering. Retrieved from: .

Constantino, C. (2018). What Can Stutterers Learn from the Neurodiversity Movement?. Seminars in Speech and Language, 39(04): 382-396

Manning, W. H., Dilollo, A. (2018) Clinical Decision Making in Fluency Disorders, Fourth Edition. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing. 

Plexico, L., Manning, W. H., Dilollo, A., (2015), A phenomenological understanding of successful stuttering management. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 30, 1-22.

Sheehan, J. G. (1998). message to a stutterer. In S. B. Hood (Ed.), adivce to those who stutter (pp. 31-35). Retrieved from

Secondary Behaviors of Stuttering: How to Eliminate These Avoidance Behaviors.

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