If you have noticed your child using vocal fry, you may be worried that it is a sign of a larger speech disorder. Or, perhaps, someone like a teacher or childcare provider has made you aware of your child using vocal fry, and you don’t even know where to begin.
Vocal fry is a low register tone produced by a person’s vocal cords. Some people use it intentionally others do not. It does not harm a person physically, but it can become a habit and has societal implications.
So, let’s explore reasons children use vocal fry and whether or not that can be a sign of a speech disorder.
What is Vocal Fry?
Glottal fry or vocal fry is when a person uses a lower pitch when speaking. This is the lowest vocal register a person can make and usually comes with a raspy sound. It often occurs at the end of a sentence when a person doesn’t have enough breath to sustain the entire speech. Vocal fry can be used intentionally and unintentionally.
According to the National Institution on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, voice is produced when air flows into the lungs and through the vocal folds at high speeds. When we breathe, the air pressure increases in the larynx until the vocal folds blow apart. But, during voice production, much like a stringed instrument, the vocal cords will vibrate, generating sound.
A child will then use their nose, mouth, lips, and tongue to shape the sounds and produce the words they communicate with.
The vocal register includes the range of sounds a person can make with their voice. There are several types of vocal registers, which include vocal fry, falsetto, modal, and whistle register. A modal vocal register is considered normal.
When a child is using vocal fry, they are relaxing their vocal cords without changing the amount of air pressure they are using. This generates slower vibrations and a lower tone. Vocal fry is characterized by a low, creaky voice sound quality. Some people think it sounds like bacon sizzling in a pan. It also is characterized as being raspy.
The qualities of jitter and shimmer, which are the pitch and volume of the voice, change in the production of vocal fry based on the gender of the person.
Some people think the sound of vocal fry is cool. Many celebrities have a vocal fry that has gotten a lot of notice recently. Other people think it is annoying and offputting and just want people to use their normal voices.
Ultimately, it means that your child isn’t using their breath in a way that sustains the entire sentence.
Is Vocal Fry Harmful To Your Child’s Voice?
In general, vocal fry is not physically harmful to children. It can, however, be a sign of an underlying condition. If it is not done intentionally, your child may have respiratory issues that are making it difficult for them to produce enough air to sustain their voice. Or, it could be a result of a neurological condition that makes it difficult for them to use their vocal cords correctly. Vocal fry can also be a sign of a voice disorder or be a learned habit.
If vocal fry is used intentionally by your child, there could be some side effects, although it is rare. Since your vocal cords vibrate chaotically when using vocal fry, a child who overuses this speech sound can be more susceptible to scarring and nodules on their vocal folds. Usually, this is not a cause for concern.
The main avenue where vocal fry may become harmful is in a child’s social life. Voice affects your life in many other ways than just physically. People and society perceive others based on how they use their voices. Vocal fry can negatively impact the way others perceive your child.
Recently, vocal fry has become a fad. Spurred on by the popularity of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, and Zooey Deschanel, vocal fry is a voice register that some young people use intentionally to make themselves sound more interesting. (This trend is not to be confused with uptalk, which is a way of speaking that ends everything as if you are asking a question.)
Some children may mimic the hoarseness of these celebrities to sound more trendy. Specifically, young adult women tend to use vocal fry more for the sound of it than others.
Unfortunately, female voices, in society, can be negatively assessed if they do not meet certain criteria. In a study by Long Island University in Brookville, New York, two-thirds of college-aged women in the study used vocal fry. This unpublished study suggests that women were more likely to use vocal fry in everyday speaking situations.
However, this prevalence has led to some unforeseen backlash. Young women, in particular, are perceived as less educated and less hirable in the workplace with the use of vocal fry. These female speakers are perceived as less competent by many bosses. Although this is a perception by the public, it can affect a person’s job prospects.
Although job prospects may not be foremost on the mind of parents to a younger child, the way they choose to speak can affect a child’s confidence, how others react to their child, and how others view their child.
If they are using vocal fry intentionally, they may get into the habit of using it which could have future consequences.
What Causes Vocal Fry?
People have different voices because everyone’s vocal tract is different. Vocal folds have different shapes and sizes. A person who naturally has a vocal fry register generally has thicker vocal cords that don’t close as tightly. These thicker cords may also vibrate more slowly than others. This is what produces that raspy sound.
Vocal fry can also be a learned habit. Children may use vocal fry intentionally to give their voice a sound quality they like. Once a child uses this vocal register over and over, it is hard for them to not use it. So, they have to get retrained on how to speak if they want to break the habit.
The American English language has more vocal fry to it than many other languages. If your child has learned American English as a second language, their vocal fry may be a result of that.
However, sometimes vocal fry has an underlying cause. If vocal fry is part of a voice disorder, it is often one of many symptoms. If your child’s vocal fry is accompanied by vocal fatigue and throat pain, they may have something else going on.
It is important to note that children who choose to use vocal fry can turn it on and off, whereas children with an underlying illness cannot.
Is Vocal Fry a Symptom of a Voice Disorder?
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, voice disorders are characterized by a change in how the voice sounds. Voices disorders can be caused by structural issues such as changes in the tissues of the vocal folds or physical changes in the larynx.
They can also be caused by neurogenic factors such as vocal fold paralysis, spasmodic dysphonia, or vocal tremor.
Vocal fatigue, muscle tension dysphonia or aphonia, diplophonia, and ventricle phonation are also functional causes of voice disorders.
Your child could be using vocal fry as a result of any of those. Some children cannot sustain the breath needed to complete a line of speech because they are not able to use their breath effectively. Others have poor posture for structural reasons they cannot sustain their airflow.
If your child’s vocal fry is accompanied by other symptoms, they likely have a voice disorder.
Symptoms that indicate a voice disorder include the following:
Rough, breathy, or strained vocal quality
Abnormal pitch, loudness, or resonance
Gurling, wet voice sound
pulsed, shrill, or tremulous voice
Decreased vocal endurance
Running out of breath quickly
Differences in voice quality at different parts of the day
Increased vocal effort
Throat or laryngeal pain
If your child is experiencing these symptoms, it is important to seek out your pediatrician for further evaluation.
How is Vocal Fry Diagnosed and Treated?
If you are concerned about your child using vocal fry, or you have noticed vocal fry associated with other symptoms, it is time to get your child evaluated by a professional.
First, take your child to their pediatrician to make sure no physical problems are causing the vocal fry. Temporary vocal fry may be the result of an upper respiratory illness that is making it difficult for your child to breathe.
Based on your pediatrician’s evaluation, your child may be sent to an ears, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) to help clear the airway for better airflow. The ENT will further evaluate your child and decide on a course of action for any physical obstructions that may be causing your child’s vocal fry.
After your child has been evaluated for physical causes of vocal fry, you may want to see if your child is using this method of speaking to sound more trendy. This may be a faze and your child might outgrow the vocal fry.
Or, sometimes children are unaware of their speech patterns. Making your child aware of the way they speak can go a long way. If you point out that they speak this way, they may make a more conscientious effort to change it.
However, if the vocal fry persists, it may be time to seek out a speech-language pathologist (SLP).
How Can a Speech Therapist Help?
A speech-language pathologist is a trained professional who can evaluate your child’s vocal fry.
Once you set up a speech therapy appointment, the SLP will evaluate your child’s speech. They can tell you if the vocal fry is due to an underlying vocal disorder and come up with a treatment plan to help your child use their airflow more effectively.
SLPs are trained in speech-language pathology to be able to help children practice techniques to improve their voice quality. In voice therapy, your child will learn to use their posture to improve their airflow. They will also practice voice strength. The more your child works with the SLP the stronger their voice and communication skills will become.
Other strategies that you can use to support your child while they are in speech therapy are to make sure your child stays hydrated and remind them to take breaths when speaking. Sometimes children get overexcited when speaking and don’t take care of their voice.
It is also important to support your child throughout this whole process, as it can hurt their self-esteem to have speaking difficulties. Let them know that no matter what is going on, you have their back.
Use any tips or techniques that the SLP recommends to reinforce their learning at home.
How to Find a Speech Language Pathologist?
If you aren’t sure how to get started setting up an appointment with a speech therapist, the California Scottish Rite Foundation can help.
If you are worried speech therapy may not be covered by your insurance, we offer free speech, language, education, and literacy programs to help your child be successful. Our trained SLPs will teach your child strategies to become more confident and improve their communication skills.
Rite Care clinics are located conveniently throughout the state of California, serving communities in 17 locations. We also partner with local universities throughout the state to train and foster skilled speech pathologists who can diagnose and treat a large range of speech, language, learning, and voice disorders.
It’s easy to get started and can make a world of difference in your child’s life.
Vocal fry may be a trendy way of speaking for young women, but it can affect them in the workplace. It can also be a symptom of a larger voice disorder. If you are ready to get your child evaluated for a voice disorder, reach out to a speech-language pathologist. They can give your child a complete diagnosis and give them strategies to help improve the way they communicate.