It can be devastating when your child, who can never stop talking at home, bursting with bright personality, habitually freezes and falls silent around strangers. How can your vibrant child suddenly be at a loss for words in an uncomfortable situation? Especially when he or she is not quiet or timid at home? What is the cause of your child’s uncharacteristic silence?
The good news, though, is that most of these children can overcome the symptom with persistent help and encouragement as they mature. But early intervention, understanding what your little one is going through, and providing less anxiety-provoking environments until your child overcomes the first hurdle, of initiating some form of interaction and communication, are crucial.
Even some of us adults can feel uncomfortable and stiff around new people and unfamiliar environments, although more often than not, we quickly adapt and manage a functional level of communication. But in certain people, their anxiety prevents them from communicating normally, which is known as selective mutism.
Selective mutism is more common in children (particularly under the age of 5) than in adults, and these kids cannot open their mouths in uncomfortable situations that make them feel shy or nervous. In the severest cases, it is not even a matter of choice, but rather their body physically shuts down, preventing them from communicating on any level.
Signs of Selective Mutism in Children
Avoids eye contact in general
Only talks to close family, parents, and siblings
Plays with a very small number of friends
Talks through parents and close friends in public
Does not speak in situations that provoke their anxiety
Does not greet distant family, friends or neighbours
Hides behind parents or maintains distance when guests visit
How to help kids with selective mutism talk
1. Prepare for the new environment and people before the event
To lower their anxiety, explain the event and the place and people she will see there. Also, visiting the place ahead of time with your kid will help her or him become familiar with the new location and lower her anxiety. Giving as much detail as you can in the explanation, and discussing what your child should expect to do and see will help her or him prepare for the event.
It is also important to let your child know about any changes in routine ahead of time. For example, if there will be schedule changes at school, or your child’s educator is planning a leave of absence, you should explain in advance to your child, and help her or him adapt to the upcoming changes.
2. Gradual exposure
If your child attends daycare or school, discuss your child’s needs with teachers ahead of time, to get their help. When your child has to be exposed to a bigger group where she/he has less control over the daily schedule or activities, creating the most comfortable environment you can by providing for your child’s needs is important.
For example, helping your child sit near her closest friend at the beginning of school could be a leg up to help her communicate more often, while lowering anxiety. Seating in a corner providing some degree of privacy and one or two people he or she can open up to is crucial. If at all possible, your child’s desk should be away from high traffic areas like doorways or aisles, and not located in focal points like the center or front of the room.
It is not about giving your child privilege above her classmates, in case that concern should come up in communication with teachers who might not take the condition of selective mutism seriously enough. Providing a comfortable environment for your child until they can overcome their struggles and fear is a temporary means of extra support, like wearing a cast or using crutches, until their weak or broken parts heal and gain strength.
Although the condition can be overcome with help, there are many grown-ups who still suffer from its effects. It is important for little ones who experience selective mutism to get help and support before they isolate themselves and come to habitually avoid speaking in public.
3. Encourage your child without pressure
Children with selective mutism are afraid to be heard and seen when they speak around people that make them uncomfortable. Also, they often avoid eye contact and tend to speak better when they do not face someone’s eyes directly.
For example, your child can speak better when he or she is seated next to his or her friend, than when they are facing each other.
It means children with selective mutism struggle daily with things that are so normal and casual to most kids. The difficulties your child faces have to be gradually worked on until he or she can slowly get comfortable, without the process being noticeably remarked on and criticized. You might think of commenting to your child, “Say, hi to your friends. You can do it. If you don’t, your friends won’t know you want to play with them”, but this type of comment actually puts pressure on your child that triggers bigger anxiety.
Instead, casually engage in a simple conversation with your kid, and accept non-verbal communication while encouraging short answers.
4. Help your child feel secure and comfortable
Identify the factors that cause your child’s anxiety to spike. It can be people, places, or activities your child is involved in, and some factors can trigger greater anxiety than others.
For example, your child might have no problem speaking with her or his close ones like parents, siblings and immediate family in any number of places while doing various activities, but as soon as a new person enters the picture your child stops speaking, even in the comfort of his or her own home. In this case, your child is most affected by people, rather than location or activities.
The important thing to remember is to observe your child’s reactions as he or she is exposed to certain places, activities and people, and identify the challenging factors. Then you can start from the most comfortable conditions, and encourage your child to communicate, slowly working up to more challenging environments. Try to leave at least one comfortable factor, with the other two factors being gradually raised to more anxiety-provoking conditions.
By taking this slow but gradual approach, you are giving enough time for your child to build trust and feel secure about new environments and people.
5. Playdates and social gatherings
Especially for families that have relocated from their native environment or move a lot due to their professions, it will be hard to expand their social gatherings to involve varieties of people around them.
However, if your little one shows signs of avoiding speaking around new environments and people, it is a good idea to constantly seek opportunities to engage with groups of people, starting small and gradually expanding to larger groups.
In selective mutism, early intervention is crucial. As children grow older and spend more time avoiding interaction in uncomfortable situations, it gets harder to break the avoidance behaviours they have adopted against anxiety-provoking situations.
In summary, your child with selective mutism should be gradually exposed to anxiety-provoking environments to overcome their fear and build their sense of security. But this process is to be approached in small steps, based on your child’s anxiety-spiking factors.
The key point is, parents and anyone involved in helping the child with selective mutism have to be patient and understanding, providing the child with a secure and comfortable environment to lower anxiety, while gradually exposing the child to challenging conditions requiring them to speak. If your child is in school, getting help from teachers and staff to accommodate a more comfortable environment can help your child to achieve faster progress.
No matter how slow the process might be, do not pressure selectively mute kids to talk. Instead, comment on something positive and ask questions to initiate communication, while helping them feel secure in spite of distressing conditions.
Although, at times, your child may show little to no progress, do not give up, and persistently encourage your child in a challenging environment. Eventually, the progress will come, as your child opens up gradually.
You might also be interested in reading, Helping shy kids to thrive anywhere they go.