I kind of accidentally fell into an area of expertise I didn’t expect. How to help a child with selective mutism?
Selective mutism. Probably definitions are going to help first. Selective means when I want to, and mutism means I don’t talk.
Okay, so that’s going to help. This can be a really frustrating situation. Selective mutism, typically our kids who can talk, they have all of the language skill and ability that’s necessary to communicate. But they choose not to speak in certain settings. I use the word “choose” very carefully because this is a complicated dynamic that has at least three components to it that I will share with you here.
But this is frustrating for parents or for teachers to see that this kid can talk but doesn’t talk in certain settings. Now, what are the three components that add to this?
I believe strongly from my own experience and the kids that I’ve worked with that there is an “anxiety” component that supports this particular diagnosis. What I mean by that is… it develops almost like a phobia does. In a phobia, something happens where we have an unpleasant experience with whatever the stimulus is.
Might be a spider, it might be something to do with heights or with social interactions. Whatever it is, but it triggers a fear response. We basically have two choices when we have a fear response to something. We can either face that fear. Yeah, like that’s likely. Or we can run away from it. More likely, right?
Because our mind tells us, “hey, that’s dangerous. Get out of there.”
When we avoid something that we fear, it actually increases our fear of that thing, long-term. When we face it, it actually increases our fear short term but in the long term helps to alleviate or reduce that fear. Phobias develop when we avoid something and reinforce the fear because there’s some fuzzy logic going on.
“Oh, I feel so much better when I avoid that thing” It must be dangerous. Do you see the fuzzy logic? It doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous.
It just means you feel better when you avoid it, at first. But over time, it increases the fear. That’s the problem that we run into and I see this dynamic with selective mutism. Somehow, they have an experience and we can’t always even identify what that experience was. What started this, what triggered it.
Some of the parents who have worked with me can say, “oh yeah, it was when this happened that my son started not to speak anymore.” But a lot of times, we can’t even identify the triggering source. It’s just developed now into a pattern where they never speak at school. They never speak outside of the home and that avoidance has paid off for them because they feel better in the short run. But in the long run it just kind of feeds on itself.
Now another dynamic that’s happening here is “relationship dynamic.” This one’s a little tough for us as parents or teachers or counselors because we actually train each other.
Also Read: HOW TO GET YOUR KID TO STOP SCREAMING
We and our children, train each other how to interact. So in this relationship dynamic as the child fears the social interaction and refuses to speak, what does mom do? Well, she often will jump in and speak for the child, okay? Or a teacher, what does a teacher do? Uses sign language or comes up with a different form of communication that works.
Teachers got 15 other kids that she’s trying to deal with.
What am I going to do with this one? Well, I’m going to do what’s efficient and what’s convenient and what’s helpful. For that, child to refused to speak causes an inconvenience for the adult. That adult is going to solve the inconvenience in the most efficient way that they can come up within the moment. And usually that dynamic then starts to train each other, how to handle certain situations. So, they might go to a restaurant.
For example, and the child is completely unwilling to verbalize what they want or to order what they want. So, they whisper it into mom’s ear and mom orders if for them. And that tends to work for everyone. But it perpetuates the dynamic too. So that relationship dynamic is the second factor that I wanted to point out. Now the third one has to do simply with “habit.” Whatever we practice, we get really good at and if our kiddo has been practicing not speaking for quite some time and it seems to be working for them, they’re going to get really good at it.
Most of the kids that I’ve worked with who have selective mutism, actually tend to be quite bright. They’re thinkers and they know at some level that this is working for them.
Now, I’m not saying that they enjoy it because most of the kids I’ve worked with also want to overcome it. But they don’t believe that they can. And the fear at this point has grown to the anxiety component has grown to the point that it’s almost paralyzing for them.
So that’s why it’s frustrating and I wanted to share those dynamics with you so that you get a sense of what it is that we’re dealing with. Now, based on our understanding of it, what can we do about it?
Well, for each of these contributing factors, we can add an intervention component.
Tips 1: Intervention Component
So, let’s go with the first one “Anxiety”, knowing that this is an anxiety-based problem, what we want to do in terms of intervene is to offer opportunities for that child to face his fears. Now, is he going to be all excited about that?
No! because everything in his mind is telling him, he needs to avoid that. What it comes down to is an approach-avoidance conflict. We experienced this all the time as adults too. Where you really want something, that’s the approaching draw.
But there are all kinds of costs or difficulties or hard things about that. That’s the avoidance part of the dynamic. The approach and avoidance conflict that these kids are feeling, can be very intense. So, what we want to do is create opportunities for them to face that and practice overcoming it.
Here’s an example of one thing. We set it up. He loves ice cream. We set it up, so mom was going to take him to Baskin Robbins. 30 wonderful flavors. He gets to pick whatever flavor he wants and whatever size he wants.
As long as he orders it, mom buys it. If he doesn’t order it, mom doesn’t buy it. Do you see the approach of avoidance conflict that we’re setting up?
Now, normally when they would go to the ice cream store, he would get really quiet. He’d back off mom, would ask him, “well, what do you want? Tell the lady what you want.” And he wouldn’t say anything and he’d get this nervous look on his face and he kind of looked down and look us up. He wouldn’t say a word. Mom would lean down to him and he would whisper into her ear what he wanted and then she would order for him. That’s how it typically went. Well, we changed that dynamic right?
What he orders he gets to eat, if he doesn’t order anything, he doesn’t need anything. So mom ordered what she wanted. Give him an opportunity. Son, what would you like? He doesn’t say anything. He gets nervous, he looks to her to lean down to him. She’s waiting patiently.
Would you like to order something? Still silent.
Mom was great how she handled this because can you feel that as a parent, how that’s going to pull on you a little bit and you’re not sure you really want to do this. You have to have the guts actually to follow through and she did it beautifully and she did it kindly.
Where she said, “well, I guess he’s not going to order anything. We’ll just go with what I ordered.” Wow! Can you see that that’s kind of tough? But the beautiful thing about this is, after a few trials of this, the kid actually did order something and he had success there. We’ll come back to that when I get to the third tip.
Tips 2: Reduce The Expectation
Tip number two, adds on to what we’ve just talked about with creating opportunities for them to face their fears and experience some success or failure.
Be ready for them to fail and be okay with that.
In fact, step number two is this, “reduce the expectation.” This kid is bright. He knows that there’s an expectation that he changes this behavior and that he steps up and starts speaking. He knows that. In fact, a lot of the kids that I’ve worked with are very sensitive socially.
And if they make an effort to speak, everyone around them, mom, dad, therapist, teacher start to celebrate. “Oh, awesome! Great job! And they’re like, “ugh,” it freaks him out a little bit if we react too much.
So we’re going to reduce the expectation and we’re going to tone down our reactions. I think what we want to do is take all of the drama out of this thing and make it very practical. You can order ice cream or not, either way fine with me.
So the expectation comes down and then the reaction comes down too. Kid orders the ice cream. I want a bar of chocolate. Single. Instead of saying, “oh nice job, sweetie!”
That probably works against us in this case. Simply continue business as usual and allow the consequence to happen. This is powerful based on what I know about the psychology that’s going on with these kids. So, we’re not going to do a whole lot of celebration. Reduce the expectation and the response to that.
Going right along with this is to remove the rescuing and not in a dramatic way. “I’m not going to order for you anymore.” No, it’s simple, “you can order or not. Either way is fine and you get to have whatever you order. Any questions? And I love that little, “Any questions?”
Because it’s just like, “Hey, I know what I’m doing here, okay? And we take the drama down. So, we’re not going to rescue, but we’re not going to do that dramatically if that makes sense to you.
Tips 3: Get The Practice Reps In
Now, tip number three has to do with the habit factor that I talked about. Whatever we practice, we get really good at. They’re not going to be good at speaking in these uncomfortable situations until they’ve had a chance to practice it multiple times.
So when you get that first success that’s awesome, Remember don’t celebrate too much because that freaks them out a little bit on the social scale. Merely a matter of fact, business as usual. Let the consequence do the teaching. Maybe connecting with a bit of empathy helps too.
Well, you know after you leave the ice-cream shop, “well, son, how did that feel? I was nervous, whatever. Well, I think you did a great job. Nice. We’ll try it again tomorrow.” Or in a day or two or whatever it is but you need to repeat the practice. Practice, training and practice.
That’s tip number three. “Get the practice reps in” because that’s what’s going to build the confidence. And This is All about how you help your kids with selective mutism.
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