5 most valuable things I’ve learnt after having had Selective Mutism

Family is one of the most essential things in life (especially with a child with SM)

I discovered this more to the fact that as a family whom I lived with we were distant and ‘dysfunctional’ than us having been close. I grew up with my mother and brother (three years my younger who also has SM) and I am sure that my mother’s side of the family had been born with a predisposition to anxiety, as I feel I too was, and taciturnity – having the trait of sometimes being a bit uncommunicative in public at times and not volunteering anything more than necessary. Being gripped with the disabling affects of Selective Mutism especially at school, I felt lonely, isolated and even to an extent unloved (particularly as a teenager) despite my family showing it in every other way other than in a physical or verbal manner. Feeling deprived, it lowered my self- esteem, made me feel unhappy at times and less able to function at school etc than those of others around me. Spending nearly seven hours at school five days a week in resounding silence and having no or few friends and then going home to a family you did not get on with nor hardly ever speak to was quite the loneliest feeling. I had experienced countless times when I had needed somebody to speak to when I was bullied and needed someone to make it stop, when I needed help with my SM, health, when something was wrong as a child and when the family is so distant and it is unnatural to communicate, I had to suffer. I remember once when I was around eleven years old and the lower right of my abdomen was in excruciating pain and I was terrified it might have been Appendicitis I could not even go and tell my mother something as serious as that. Give your child opportunities aplenty to sit down and communicate with you so they are not afraid to tell you anything. Characteristically, SM sufferers have trouble expressing how they feel (something I still have trouble with at 21) if somebody was to ask, I’d reply ‘I don’t know’ ten out of ten times in my childhood and teens. Also give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time and socialise with friends, even though they may be very quiet and withdrawn in other settings, it’s great for them to express their vivacious, talkative side elsewhere. As reflected in many cases of SM (particularly teenage boys), which I have been familiar with, they may stop going out and seeing their friends almost completely and get into the habit of staying at home all the time and keeping themselves to themselves. The family (and closest friends considered as family), in summation, are the main source of help for the SM child. As a family, you should also take the responsibility to educate yourself about SM because there are a lot of people out there willing to help who in a lot of cases will misinterpret it or not understand it – this way your child will receive the most suitable intervention and treatment. It has been proven that those with a supportive family behind them perform better in every way and generally live a ‘happier’ life.

Do not procrastinate. Time will fly by before you know it.

SM sufferers tend to put things off until the very last minute. I was always doing it and to this day can often still be a chronic procrastinator. I would do my homework five minutes quickly before I left for school the day it was due when it was given a week in advance, get dressed for school last moment or tidy up my room last minute. Procrastination is an anxiety related symptom. If a child leaves their homework, it might go straight into their bag with little comment, if they dawdle getting ready for school they might just hope for you to say ‘It’s too late for you to go to school now, you might as well take the day off.’ A way to eradicate this behaviour, which is the only thing which sometimes worked for me, is the ‘Two Minute Rule.’ If something is started quickly and suddenly within two minutes, it is easy to just go for it. Try asking your child to do this if they seem to be experiencing this problem. During anxiety provoking moments when the flight or fight response would erupt, particularly at school, I would shut down and freeze – I’d find it physically difficult to move or get up at all and I suppose that that was in a way another form of procrastination taking the time to move. I’ve wasted so much time of my life leaving everything until later on and doing nothing in the meantime. It can be a difficult habit to break.

Make the most of your education whilst you’re young.

Most clinicians who work with large groups of children with SM say that they find they tend to have above average intelligence and emotional intelligence. They are also said to be introspective – more curious and perceptive of the things going on around them. However, teachers can often have difficulty in evaluating the sufferers academic ability. I was unfortunate enough to have missed out on an entire GCSE qualification even though I had gained high marks in most parts of the course just because I could not take part in the oral part. It felt so unfair and unreasonable after I had put so much work into it and passed the rest of the course when the oral part made up such a small percentage of the final GCSE grade. Left untreated, it can lead to dropping out of education early and discourage the sufferer from undertaking further education. I wish I hadn’t dropped out of sixth form when I had – I had great opportunities going on for me and the thirst to study but let my anxiety once again get the better of me. My brother was an A* student in several subjects but refused to go into his exams and has very few qualifications despite having the mental capacity of an A* student in particular academic subjects.

Take responsibility for yourself.

This may be difficult for a sufferer in many situations, especially when you are unable to ask for things, express yourself and let alone talk. My Selective Mutism went undiagnosed for seventeen years which says it all really about taking responsibility for yourself. Although it took a few years, I had to bring myself to attention and it was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. When I told my teacher about my SM I was literally breathing out loud being so nervous, pulse vibrating within my ears, tears about to leak down my face … I still received no further help after that apart from a referral to the school counsellor. Naturally, talking therapy did not help with the Selective Mutism but it helped having somebody to see who cared, acknowledged me and never forced me to speak. We are the only people who can change our lives. If you ask for something, it is often statistically likely that you will get it. Not things like winning the lottery though unfortunately. And if you don’t ask, you will always wonder. The sad truth is that people do not care, rely fundamentally on nobody but yourself.

Do what makes you happy and not care what other people think.

Sometimes it was difficult to evade unhappiness having Selective Mutism and having other anxiety disorders but that did not stop me from doing what I loved when I could. Having Social Phobia, I had a mindset where I worried profusely about what people thought of me and was terrified of looking different from everybody else or out of place but it didn’t always stop me. I was the only girl who played football in my area and people, even some friends, used to laugh about it and even tell me that I shouldn’t and that I couldn’t join in. Football was an escape from the SM, an outlet, especially for speech and made me feel simply ‘free’. Different people tell me all the time that me and my boyfriend should not be together because he is much older than myself, even family are harsh and not accepting but I do not care because it makes me very happy. As Social Phobia sufferers which statistically 90% of all sufferers are said to be, they care hugely about what people think of them and do not want people to know that they are afraid, more than anything else. Sufferers actively avoid activities in which they would usually enjoy because of fears of being criticised, rejected or humiliated. I grew up avoiding some things for this reason and the older I got, the less I really cared about what people thought of me. It does sound to silly, to try to forget what people think of you and to do what you want to do. But for a sufferer, the fear is incredibly crippling and thought-consuming. People do not really care as much as you think, you are just merely a tiny drop in the bucket when putting everything into perspective.  I have always believed that Social Phobia (characterised by the fear of speaking too) is pretty much exactly the same thing as SM. When children speak for the very first time at school or in their most anxiety provoking environment, thereafter, they will only speak when asked a question but remain reluctant to ask questions. I feel this is an important point to stress.

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