If you have a child with selective mutism, all you want is to see your child having a simple, easy chat with her or his peers, in a relaxed manner. While that might not sound like much to most parents, to those raising kids with selective mutism, it can feel unattainable.
You know how charming and interesting a person your child is, which makes it all the more frustrating that this condition prevents her or him from showing who they really are, and missing out on all the fun they could be having with friends.
But there is a way you can tear down that wall of silence in your child, and help him or her to open up and start expressing all of their fantastic ideas, and enjoy conversations with others.
What is selective mutism?
Perfectly chatty, normal children may suddenly find themselves unable to speak in certain situations that trigger their anxiety and make them feel uncomfortable.
Children with selective mutism freeze whenever they feel nervous or shy, without being able to react with any form of communication.
How to help a child with selective mutism at home
Your child with selective mutism might be regarded as a silent, non-verbal child outside of the house, but quite a chatterbox at home, speaking non-stop. In spite of your child’s problems communicating outside, at home they might even display an abundance of vocabulary, beyond the norm for his or her age group. (Some children with selective mutism, however, may exhibit delays in speech development, which is the underlying cause of their non-verbal manner. This is one of the possibilities your child’s doctor will screen for while testing for selective mutism.)
One way to help your child is to provide tools for coping with situations that make him or her shy or nervous. One of the tools you can help build is prepared, general responses they can practice by using communication practice cards.
The communication practice cards simply help your child to imagine him or herself in positions that make them freeze and go silent, in order to help the child come up with appropriate responses that he or she can fall back on the next time a similar situation occurs. With enough practice, your child will be able to overcome the tendency to freeze, as the practiced responses become familiar enough that she or he can use them automatically.
Even though our end goal is to help your child shake off that initial nervousness and come up with appropriate responses on their own, until your child gets used to verbalizing in uncomfortable situations, this practice will help ease their panic and overcome the freeze reaction.
How do the conversation practice cards work
The free printable below provides some examples of cards to get you started, but you can create your own cards with situations your child faces at school or outside the home. It is important to identify situations where your child is unable to speak and keep adding to the cards, and practice repeatedly in order to prepare for the next time he or she faces a similar situation.
- Show or read to your child the card pertaining to each situation the child might encounter
- Ask questions in the role of a person your child might be interacting with, or ask your child to initiate the conversation
- Encourage your child to respond or come up with their own questions
- If your child struggles to come up with any words, use brainstorming to come up with possible responses or questions
- If your child suggests an inappropriate response, you can patiently explain the reasons it won’t work, and suggest possible alternative responses they could use
*** You and another family member can perform a little role play to model the situation more realistically, if your child is too young or has difficulty understanding the situation you are describing.
It is important for your child to understand that his or her eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures are all part of the conversation, as they help others to understand our feelings and let others know we are engaged in communication.
Things for parents to observe during communication practice
1. Eye contact
One characteristic of selective mutism is avoiding eye contact.
Help your child to look at people’s faces when they communicate. Repeatedly remind your child that when people talk it is important to look at their eyes, so they know they have her or his attention.
Tips: To help your child remember to maintain eye contact, ask her or him to find out what color of eyes the other person has.
Kids with selective mutism lack flexibility and adaptability.
When a child is too absorbed in one activity for a long time, try to change the activity by taking her or him out for a walk or suggest another activity, so the child can learn to transition between activities without difficulty.
When children with selective mutism feel shy or embarrassed, they tend to freeze without reacting, unlike most children, who can deduce an appropriate reaction based on past experiences, which requires flexibility and adaptability.
Helping your child to break their focus on a favorite activity and move on to something else outside of their immediate comfort zone can help them become more flexible and adaptable.
3. Social cues and skills
Sometimes your child’s lack of social skills and ignorance of cues from the people around them can aggravate the selective mutism.
Pay attention to whether your child is able to show interest and empathy towards others. If your child tends to focus mainly on his or her own feelings and situations, help the child to think about what other people are feeling or going through.
Frequently ask your child how she or he would feel or do, in another person’s situation. Help your child practice asking others about their feelings.
Examples: Focus on others, not “I”
- Are you okay?
- Were you upset when I said that?
- Is your head okay now?
- Which one do you want to play with first?
- Do you want to pick a toy first?
- Which one do you like?
- Do you live close to school?
- Do you want to try this lollipop?
4. Visuospatial skills and visual processing skills
Observe whether your child is able to mimic another’s movements, or is able to assemble Lego or other toys that require them to build something according to instructions.
Visuospatial skills are a person’s capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. Some examples of activities requiring visuospatial skills are buttoning shirts, constructing models, and assembling furniture. This skill set is essential for movement, depth and distance perception, for things like driving or navigating through space without bumping into things.
The reason for observing your child’s visuospatial skills is that these skills are closely connected to the functions of the brain’s frontal lobe, which manages not only motor skills, but also emotional maturity and risk aversion.
If your child struggles with activities requiring visuospatial skills, encourage him or her to spend more time doing activities that require motor coordination and assembling things.
5. Inappropriate reactions
If your child tends to overreact in a way that seems inappropriate to her or his age, help adjust the reaction to an acceptable level.
For example, if your 7-year-old child feels rejected by her friend who refuses to share a glue stick because he is using it, bawling on the floor would not be an appropriate reaction for her age, and she would benefit from some coaching on how to control uncomfortable feelings.
6. Proper words and expressions
Children with a lack of social skills may use vocabulary that does not always fit the situation. When your child uses odd words or phrases inappropriate to the context, suggest more appropriate words, so she or he can learn to use a proper expression.
For example, if your child says, “That dude is outrageously loud,” gently point out that it is better to say, “The man is quite loud”.
In summary, children with selective mutism need communication practice and coaching to develop tools that will allow them to transition beyond that initial freezing stage when they are seized by nervousness or shyness.
By using conversation practice cards to prepare responses and questions, and identifying your child’s social weak points, parents can help children with selective mutism gradually open up and speak instead of staying frozen in silence.
You might also be interested in reading, My child is a little chatterbox at home, but does not speak around strangers: Selective Mutism