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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Effects of Divorce

Q. I have a 6-year-old son who has suddenly started repeating each of his sentences. He is seemingly unaware of it. Most times, his repeated sentence is quieter, almost under his breath. What could this be from? His father and I have separated about two and a half months ago. This began only 3 weeks ago though. Does it have a name? What can be done for this?

A. I would be surprised if this new verbal behavior were not connected with your recent separation--even if there was some delay in its onset. However, I can't exclude medical, neurological, or other psychiatric factors. The problem you describe could fall under several categories, including terms such as dysfluency, functional dysphonia and sub-vocalization--but these labels don't really explain much.

Repetitive speech may be seen as one component of some autistic disorders, and in some forms of mental retardation. For example, there is an inherited disorder called Fragile X Syndrome that may present with social withdrawal, abnormal speech, and mild mental retardation. However, before getting too anxious about these hypothetical possibilities and assuming that your son was relatively well-adjusted until recently, I would focus on how your son is dealing with the separation.

This can be a very distressing and frightening experience for young children, even if they don't show it in an obvious way. It may turn out that your son's repetitive speech is a kind of obsessive-compulsive ritual, unconsciously aimed at reducing his anxiety. After all, if you can't control your parents, at least you can have control over your speech. But, I can only offer some educated guesses.

I think the safest course is, first, to gently explore your son's feelings about the separation, letting him know that it is OK to feel upset about it. You may need to do this sort of checking in a few times. If you are on relatively good terms with his father, it may be useful for the two of you to be involved in helping your son cope with the separation--but this might best be done in the course of some professional counseling. (If you parted on bad terms, it may do more harm than good to involve your husband right now).

If supportive exploration of your son's feelings does not lead to improvement in this behavior over the next few weeks, I would recommend a professional evaluation. This could be initiated by consulting a child psychologist, with the option of beginning some type of family therapy later, if the consultant thinks this would be useful. (This might depend on whether, and to what extent, your estranged husband can or will be involved). In any case, I have a feeling that dealing with the anxiety of this separation will be important to your son's improvement.

December 2002

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