by Amy Smith
You hear your child talk and laugh all the time at home, but their teacher is baffled by their total silence in the classroom. Your normally chatty kid looks frozen and can’t get out a single word at a birthday party. Sound familiar? If your child can’t seem to speak at all in certain social settings, they may be experiencing selective mutism. Although they speak normally at home and don’t seem to have a speech delay, clamming up in public can make school and social interactions painful or impossible. How do you help your child learn to communicate?
What Is Selective Mutism?
Selective mutism is a disorder in which a child speaks normally at home or in a very familiar setting but is unable to do so at school or in social settings they find uncomfortable. Selective mutism impacts school and social interactions and lasts longer than a month, not including the first month of school. This condition is highly correlated with anxiety in children, with over 90 percent of those with selective mutism also experiencing social anxiety. If your child has selective mutism, they may be able to talk to a small group of people or communicate nonverbally or by whispering, but may also become totally frozen in fear and be unable to communicate at all. If your child can’t seem to speak in school, at birthday parties, with other children at the playground, to distant family members at family gatherings or to a new babysitter, consider having them evaluated by a speech therapist or other professional who has knowledge and experience with selective mutism.
Each child’s experience of selective mutism can include different causes and variables, but for almost all kids, the inability to speak is related to a high level of anxiety in specific situations. Your eventual goal is to help them learn to speak to anyone in any setting, but a necessary companion goal is to reduce that situational anxiety. Consider taking Brillia, a homeopathic remedy which can help normalize brain processes, easing the symptoms of situational anxiety. Practicing relaxation and mindfulness regularly, especially before activities that may trigger anxiety, can also provide relief. Don’t try to force your child to speak in uncomfortable situations. Pressure or angry disapproval from parents can make your child’s anxiety and selective mutism worse.
Techniques to Increase Communication
A professional who is knowledgeable about selective mutism will probably concentrate on getting your child gradually more confident in one difficult situation at a time. Progress may be slow at first. A child who has been completely uncommunicative may be encouraged to begin using nonverbal communication in the classroom, such as pointing, nodding or other gestures. The next step could be mouthing or whispering answers to questions, followed eventually by a brief response at normal volume. At home, you can begin a one-on-one conversation, then have another person slowly join you and attempt to extend the child’s conversation with one more person. Set up playdates with just one other child, and when your child is able to talk to that friend, invite another friend at the same time. Visit a sandwich shop and order something, as you encourage your child to give you input on what they would like. After a few more visits, ask your child to state their own order. Remember to give your child time to respond to your questions or prompting. If they feel rushed, they may be unable to speak. For every bit of progress, give praise, encouragement and small tangible rewards.
Build a Team Around Your Child
A child with selective mutism will be most at ease at home, so expanding their ability to speak will be very dependent on the help and support of school staff, friends and other family members. You will want to build a strong relationship with her classroom teacher, to make sure the teacher is informed about selective mutism and uses the same techniques for progress that you are using outside the classroom, following recommendations from a speech therapist or other professional. Get other family members and friends involved with your efforts and remind everyone to use positive reinforcement rather than pressure to improve speaking skills in all settings. With support from you, a therapist and your child’s teacher, you can slowly make changes that will help your child communicate effectively in any situation.
Amy Smith is a writer specializing in family and parenting. She teaches English, Latin and music at a private school, and lives with her husband and five children on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania.