Kids rarely pick a personality and stick with it from the moment they are born until adulthood. Most children will have times of silence and times of wild, ceaseless chatter. Children will fall silent for a while in the company of particular family or non-family members, then go back to including them in their conversations.
Many children are quiet around new people, especially new adults. Kids entering school for the first time may be wary of the whole school environment and afraid to talk to teachers or school staff until they become more comfortable.
However, there are times when extreme quiet and even “shyness” are signs of a more serious issue.
Most parents know by now that a lack of speaking in the toddler and preschool-aged years can be a sign of a neurological difference like autism or Aspbergers syndrome. A lack of verbal communication can also be one of the first signs of a hearing difference or another physical issue.
If you suspect those issues may possibly be the culprit behind your child’s extended silence, the first place to start is with your child’s pediatrician.
One issue that’s particularly difficult to deal with, but not nearly as well known even among educators and pediatricians, is called “selective mutism”. About 1 in every 100 children is affected with this disorder. To compare it to a more well-known condition, Autism affects about 1 in 59.
The name is misleading because children don’t “select” their silence. The “selective” portion of the title means “in select places or situations”. Children who deal with selective mutism are able to speak normally in some situations but may be completely unable to communicate in others.
In addition, they are able to speak to “select” or certain people with whom they are most comfortable but unable to speak to others. Often, they are desperate to speak but are incapable of doing so.
Adults who don’t know about this condition – even educators and physicians – may mistake this condition for a number of others and struggle to help children with selective mutism. To be clear, selective mutism is NOT:
- a child choosing not to speak
- something you can talk them out of
- something a child can just stop
- a need for more discipline
- an intelligence disorder
- a communication disorder (it is not a speech or language issue)
Additionally, selective mutism is not actually shyness, and it may not necessarily be something a child will just “grow out of”. Many children with selective mutism grow up to become nearly silent, isolated adults. Children with selective mutism need to receive intervention as soon as possible, early on, in order to gain the coping skills they need.
The earlier children receive intervention, the more positive the outcome is likely to be.
This can be challenging since most children don’t really show signs of selective mutism until they enter school.
Important to note, too, is that selective mutism does not occur because of trauma (some silence issues are caused by trauma, just to be clear, but selective mutism is not). Parents may be concerned that children have been harmed in some way that has pushed them into silence, but this is not the case.
In order to be classified as selective mutism, the silence has to be separate from all these other issues mentioned above, including trauma.
Selective mutism is an anxiety-based disorder.
According to the most extensive research done on selective mutism,
- difficulty responding or beginning verbal conversations
- difficulty with nonverbal communication
- average to advanced intelligence
- sensitive, observant, and intuitive
- frequently “freeze” when anxious, responding to anxiety-inducing situations as physical threats
- poor eye contact
- extensive time taken when responding to questions
- may find “polite” and greeting words the most difficult to produce
- do not respond well to receiving any kind of attention
Children with selective mutism are not always completely silent. Some only speak to immediate family members. Some will whisper to specific staff members at school. Some can speak normally with classmates or friends.
No matter who they are capable or incapable to communicate with, these kids need to be respected. Their boundaries are important, and they have to be comfortable in order to communicate.
They may not even feel comfortable enough to communicate with some people nonverbally with signs or by pointing, and parents have to be very careful not to put more pressure on children who are already struggling with so much anxiety that they cannot communicate.
However, there is hope. There are ways to help these children, and there are ways to advocate for your child if they have this condition.
Ways to Help
Remember, this condition is still not widely known among educators or physicians. You may have to be your child’s advocate if they are showing signs of selective mutism. You may find yourself in the awkward position of educating the educators and other professionals in your child’s life.
There are a few ideas that seem to be effective if used by educators and other adults in your child’s life, though.
First, Build Relationship
The best strategy is finding a relaxed time together. If a teacher is willing to commit to it and can manage to find the time, spending just a few minutes a day with your child doing a low-stress activity, every day, for several weeks can help relax the child.
Activities can include anything the child likes to do – a puzzle, a board game, coloring, looking at books together, or playing with a favorite toy. Anything the child finds relaxing and enjoyable and can be done without any preparation or fuss in a classroom setting is ideal.
Let the adult know that play is powerful, and often a child will “slip” and say something once they get comfortable. The WORST thing the adult could do is draw attention to the child talking. Instruct them to keep things casual and not to draw attention to the child speaking.
The child is likely to panic a little themselves if they notice, and the adult staying calm will likely help them stay calm themselves. The bigger deal the adult makes about the communication, the more likely it is that the child will be stressed and return to silence.
Other ways for a teacher to draw them in to gain confidence is to establish and allow any nonverbal communication or interactions the child may be comfortable with. Again, even nonverbal communication is sometimes too much for the child with selective mutism, but allowing them to make some decisions and have some control may be useful if they feel comfortable with it.
Preferably, everything you do is working gradually towards a goal of verbal interaction, but it may take a very long time.
One important thing for teachers to know is that children with selective mutism are usually very well-behaved. They do not want to draw attention to themselves in any way, so they are very careful to obey rules and “fit in”. They are very observant, watching the teacher at all times so they don’t miss anything lest they should be stuck not knowing what to do and unable to ask questions.
Teachers can depend on these students to be a great helper with tasks that require no conversation and require careful attention. They make really amazing students!
Using Forced-Choice Questions
Once your child gains confidence, suggest the teacher or adult move on to asking forced-choice questions. These are multiple-choice questions the child is asked with the specific goal of getting a verbal response.
Adults should steer clear of questions that can be answered with a nod or shake of the head. The adult should give the child three or four choices, making sure to include the child’s most likely response as one of the choices.
Questions should be asked in private and never with an audience unless the child indicates they are comfortable with others around.
If at first they cannot answer a question, allow them to blow a little air out, hum, or make some small noise to indicate when you say their selected answer.
Instruct the adult to be clear about their expectations. Initially, they can ask the child to speak clearly, not whispering, not making a noise, and not making a different sound. If the child cannot, that’s okay. Give them other options for how they answer, rephrase the question, or make it otherwise reasonably easier to provide an answer.
Do NOT remove the question, rather, alter the expectation if and only if the child seems distressed.
Once a question is asked, the adult should give the child five minutes or so to answer. When they do provide an answer, the adult should reflect or restate the response, then gently thank them for responding without drawing extra attention to it. A quiet thumb’s up, a whispered, “good job” or “thank you for letting me know” is plenty.
Children with selective mutism are particularly sensitive to eye contact. Remind the adults in their lives not to make them feel as though they are staring. Sometimes when children are difficult to hear because they speak quietly, adults are so eager to hear their words that they will get too close and stare too hard.
Remind adults to follow your child’s lead, possibly even having conversations while sitting side-by-side rather than face-to-face to avoid this pressure.
If your child is experiencing symptoms of selective mutism or deep anxiety, seek help from a professional who is familiar with the issue. That should be your first priority. Aside from that, we hope these tips help you as you help your child.
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