Summertime can (and should) be a period of fun and relaxation but parents and professionals should not overlook the importance of maintaining social communication opportunities for children and teens with Selective Mutism during this time.  Instead, summer is an ideal time for building social confidence, practicing and implementing social communication opportunities, and enjoying the summer fun!

Download The Selective Mutism Summer Vacation and Back to School Guide for comprehensive recommendations and strategies to navigating the routines, activities, and decisions that are distinctive to summer. Summer activities may include visiting relatives, attending camps, attending Memorial Day, Fourth of July parties and cook-outs, getting together with friends, going on vacation, or simply relaxing.  Each one of these social encounters is an opportunity for children and teens with Selective Mutism to continue to develop their social comfort and communication skills.

In the meantime, here are three things to keep in mind when planning for social gatherings with friends and extended family and relatives:

  1. Tell Your Child What/Who to Expect Ahead of Time

Before visiting with relatives and friends, parents can help their child understand what to expect.  For example, parents can tell their child who will be present at a gathering. This may help the child/teen feel more in control and less anxious.  For younger children, it may be helpful to look at pictures of relatives who they do not see often.  Old photos can be looked at while the child checks off which relatives will be present.

Some individuals with Selective Mutism, especially those who tend to shadow their parents and who take a long time to warm up, may benefit from having a role in the social encounter.  For example, if relatives and friends are visiting the child’s/teen’s home, he or she could oversee (or help with) setting the table, taking the coats, or handing out drinks and snacks. If your family is traveling to someone else’s home, your child/teen could carry the family gift or dinner dish.  He or she could bring a special photo album or toy.  These items may serve as a prop that will take focus off your child and onto the item, thereby helping your child develop his or her social engagement skills.

For all children, allowing warm up and monitoring body language for comfort are important steps. The individual’s comfort must be respected.

The importance of social engagement cannot be emphasized enough. The more efforts and opportunities for engagement, the quicker the warm up and the easier progress is made across the Social Communication Bridge®.

  1. Tell Your Friends/Relatives What to Expect Ahead of Time: The Role of Perceived Expectations

Even as a child/teen is making progress with treatment, this progress may not continue when in the presence of some relatives.  Similarly, progress may only be seen when the child is in the presence of some relatives. Why? Many children with SM sense a high expectation for speech and communication from their relatives.  Usually, these are the people who have tried to “get the child to talk” in the past.  Because of that past behavior, these are usually the last individuals to whom the child with Selective Mutism will speak.

What is the factor here? EXPECTATIONS. Therefore, it is important to educate relatives and friends on how to interact with the child with SM. Doing so will help to minimize the child’s sense of expectation. Parents can explain to their relatives that their son or daughter has Selective Mutism and needs more time than others to become comfortable in some environments. What’s the best way to do this? Download our free, customizable worksheet, “About My Child.” It’s perfect for this situation.

  1. Use Every Opportunity to Practice Social Communication

When relatives, adult friends, and peers ask questions, the individual’s ability to respond is dependent upon his or her baseline level of social communication on the Social Communication Bridge™. Therefore, the child/teen can and should participate in all question/answer opportunities.

Stage 0 – Stage 1: For the child/teen who is not comfortable, tends to avoid, and remains mute around the relative: Prompt or stimulate nonverbal communication (e.g., pointing, nodding, gesturing).

Stage 1 – Stage 2: For the child/teen who is becoming comfortable, may quietly speak around the relative or friend but not to them. Parents may re-ask questions and prompt the child to “tell me.” In doing so, the parent begins to act as a Verbal Intermediary™. After the child responds to his or her parent in front of their relative, the parent repeats the answer if the relative did not hear.  As the child/teen with Selective Mutism gets more and more comfortable with this process, the child will become louder and louder.

The use of the Verbal Intermediary™ is a transitional strategy that helps the child begin to use his or her voice in the presence of other people in direct response to their questions. Note: This is very different than speaking to a parent in front of, but not to, other people. The parent, or perhaps the sibling or buddy, is changing his or her own behavior by re-asking the child the question and prompting him or her to answer the parent. Increasing distance from parents is a treatment goal.

Examples of using a Verbal Intermediary™ during a social event with a family member:

  • When greeted by someone, the child turns to his/her parent, sibling, or buddy and says “hi” rather than speaking directly to the relative
  • When relatives ask questions such as “How are you?” the child turns to individual he CAN speak to and provides the one-word response.
  • When playing games, such as board game, the child can read the card to his Verbal Intermediary™ or whisper buddy rather than speaking directly to a relative or friend also playing the game
  • During the SM Interview Game™, the child can answer or ask questions through his or her Verbal Intermediary™.

There are many children and teens with Selective Mutism who are already very comfortable with select individuals but remain mute. This implies they have mastered social engagement and nonverbal communication but are stuck against the nonverbal wall on the Social Communication Bridge™.  In other words, they do not appear at all anxious but on the contrary, very comfortable! Although the Verbal Intermediary™ can be used to help bridge them into speech, these children/teens are often phobic to speech and hence have developed a secondary speech phobia. Utilizing the transitional strategy of shaping sounds into words often works well for these individuals.