What parents should do to help their child with Selective Mutism

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Having suffered with Selective Mutism for 17 years and after studying it and sharing my experiences with the world, I feel I have rather extensive knowledge into the nature of this debilitating childhood anxiety disorder. An outcome of writing my autobiography on these experiences, I have been described as ‘The Voice of Selectively Mute Children’ and would like to share my advice based on my experiences which I hope can facilitate the process of your child overcoming Selective Mutism. 

Firstly, owing to such lack of awareness on this condition, it is often unusual for a lot of doctors, speech therapists etc to never have even heard of Selective Mutism. I once asked a speech therapist of 20 years what he understood Selective Mutism to be and he replied, ‘It’s when a child chooses not to speak.’ That really says it all. As parents, you must be responsible for educating yourselves as much as you can on Selective Mutism and advocating it to everyone involved in your child’s life such as their teachers, family, friends etc. Make them understand that they have a genuine fear of speaking and that the way to combat it is by making them feel comfortable and easing the anxiety not by pressuring them or tricking them into speaking which will of course exacerbate it. Some professionals may ‘get it’, but because SM is rather unheard of, others will try to convince you of it being something else. So read and find out about SM as much as you can identifying the symptoms so you can help your child. 

Get professional help for your child. The sooner they are diagnosed and receive treatment, the greater chance they will have overcoming it. A combination of Stimulus Fading, Desensitisation, and perhaps medication is the most recommended method of treatment. Common medications prescribed to help reduce anxiety to allow speaking and interaction include fluoxetine (Prozac) and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Get help for your child as soon as possible. Waiting will only reinforce the maladaptive behaviours and will make it more difficult to overcome later.

I feel, that despite having had no help for my SM for 17 years, the thing which helped me the most was belief in myself. I focused so hard on how confident, talkative and bubbly I was away from school and convinced myself that the mute girl at school was NOT me at all and I did not let the SM define me. Naturally, this will apply more to an older child or teenager along with interpersonal skills. 

Next, understand that Selective Mutism is simply based on the ‘expectation’ of speaking. Have you noticed that when your child meets somebody new for the first time or sometimes speaks to a stranger they can talk straight away but will have trouble speaking to someone who has always known them to be mute or hardly speak? The chances are, in the child’s mind, they know that the stranger will be expecting them to speak so there will therefore be little pressure on them to speak. With somebody they know, on the other hand, the child will know that they will not be expecting them to speak and that if they did speak, it would provoke an extravagant reaction so the attempt to speak will be accompanied by anxiety. 90% of children with SM also have Social Phobia and a Social Phobia sufferer’s biggest fear is embarrassing themselves or looking different from others around them. So, if they spoke all of a sudden, can you imagine how distressing that would be for them? This is often why when children start at a new school with nobody they know or have seen before, tend to progress and speak. So ideally, give your child the impression that you are always expecting them to speak. 

Encourage your child to get involved in a sport or occupy themselves with a hobby etc which they enjoy and which will inspire and exhilarate them. I grew up playing football and after spending every school day drowning in silence without uttering a word, I would come home and go straight out and play football with my mates. I was the loudest one out the lot and I picked up tremendous leadership skills from it. It worked wonders for my self-esteem which had been wrecked by the SM at school and my confidence. Whatever it is they enjoy doing, they will eventually become ore advanced at it and it will boost their confidence. 

Show your child that you care and are not concerned about the mutism. I never had a close relationship with my mother so I never had anybody to speak to and had nobody to tell when I was being bullied. Children with SM, moreover, tend to spend a lot of time alone with nobody to talk to at school and also have difficulty expressing themselves so I think it is consequently very important to show your child plenty of love, verbally and physically, so they know that they can speak to you regarding anything. Furthermore, treat them as you would with any other child and do not bring up the SM as though it’s a real problem. 

Ask less yes or no questions. The more you allow your child to communicate non-verbally, the more ingrained the mutism is likely to become. In other respects, I am often asked if it is a good idea to allow a child to communicate with sign language or with picture cards. This is a bad idea because the child will get too accustomed and reliant or non-verbal communication and it will become a replacement for speaking. The child will then think that it is OK to not communicate verbally and the longer this goes on for, the more entrenched their mutism unfortunately would become. 

Although this may only really apply to older sufferers, acceptance is a significant part to overcoming this condition, I feel. If you are in denial about the problem and just can’t face that you have SM, then you may have trouble becoming more confident. Now 21, I wrote an autobiography ( http://www.lulu.com/shop/jessica-thorpe/drifting-in-and-out-of-my-two-worlds/paperback/product-21291048.html ) at 17 about my difficult experiences having grown up with the fear of speaking and by reflecting upon everything in writing, it gave me peace of mind about the debilitating experiences I had endured in the past and I was able to move on from it all. Therefore, I feel it is important for your child to be given the opportunity to express themselves about their SM regarding how they are feeling etc, even if it’s written down or expressed in another way. 

Jessica Thorpe

4 thoughts on “What parents should do to help their child with Selective Mutism

  1. I agree with everything you said however I have a few suggestions for parents of teenage girls with sm if they do not feel comfortable asking you questions or just asking for stuff then when they are old enoph to start their period keep a supply of pads and tampons in the bathroom. Yes this is advice from one more that has spent my entire life dealing with sm myself and I was always to scared to ask my mom to get me some so I went many times with wads of toilet paper and it was awful. I was so glad when my older sister would be home for a few months and I could “steal” hers.

  2. Thank you Jessica
    Your guidance for parents is so helpful for both parents and the professionals supporting them – and ultimately for the children unlucky enough to have SM of course. I’m updating the Selective Mutism Resource Manual at the moment and will include a lot more for teenagers and parents this time. I wondered if I could take a couple of your comments to put in speech bubbles with your name to illustrate key points?
    i.e. “Ideally, give your child the impression that you are always expecting them to speak” and
    “Ask less yes or no questions. The more you allow your child to communicate non-verbally, the more ingrained the mutism is likely to become.”
    Both these suggestions are counter-intuitive for many parents, but when I’ve encouraged and supported families to make these changes, they’ve really seen their children’s confidence in speaking grow. But that won’t surprise you!
    I look forward to hearing from you and hope you don’t mind me contacting you in this way, my thanks again for all your support to others,
    Very best wishes
    Maggie

    • Hi Maggie.
      Thanks for getting in touch, but unfortunately, I appear to be three years too late on the uptake. Very touched by your response nevertheless. I am yet still to obtain the updated version, although I used to introduce the former to parents as ‘The Bible of SM’. Insightful manual – I don’t think anybody ‘gets it’ as you and Alison Wintgens do. I thank you anyway for the thought.
      All the best,
      Jess

  3. Haha, what’s 3 years between friends!
    Two things I’d like to share with you – since I wrote I’ve been involved in starting up monthly meetings for adults who have SM. Although the ages range from twenty-something to 50-something, the group has gelled really well and we all get a lot out of it. On the first session we started with a Bring and Share session where we all brought something personal to show the group – one of the young adults brought your book which she thoroughly recommended!
    And today, just over a year later, by complete coincidence our discussion topic was helpful and unhelpful parenting strategies! We haven’t done anything like that before as we’ve been building up to open discussion via other more structured activities. The least helpful strategies were felt to be conveying your own anxiety to your children and not giving them enough freedom – which ties in with what you’re saying. Don’t expect the worst and take away the child’s opportunities to grow, succeed, learn and problem-solve; have faith in them and provide opportunities, rather than demands, to speak and develop resilience.
    It means a lot to me to hear you feel Alison and I ‘get it’. If we do, it’s entirely due to people like you 🙂 and by asking people how they feel, rather than obsessing about whether they talk or not!
    Lovely to hear from you
    Maggie

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