Selective mutism (SM) is a rare anxiety disorder in which children and teens are selective in which locations and people they choose to speak around. Often times, children with selective mutism do not grow out of the anxiety that is preventing them from using their words. Good Therapy has an article that demystifies a lot of the common dos and don’ts for parents to follow when working with their child with selective mutism (Penner, 2015). Below are the 10 tips that they provided:
- Do understand that selective mutism is not a “choice.” It is important for parents to recognize that the behaviors or mutism is based on their underlying anxiety, and not an act of “defiance” (Penner, 2015).
- Do lay off the questioning. Speaking and even making sounds can be very hard. When you see a child become tense, “freeze,” or clam up, it might be best to back away from questions, especially open-ended questions. Always try to provide choices (Penner, 2015).
- Do describe and praise their behaviors. Take the pressure off your child by describing what you see your child doing and praising their efforts to participate (verbally or non-verbally) (Penner, 2015).
- Do give your child time to speak. As parents, you may even feel the pressure to have your child answer questions quickly. As speaking may be hard, it is beneficial to give your child time to process the questions and try to respond. Always wait at least 5 seconds after you ask a question. Some children may need longer (Penner, 2015).
- Do notice your own reaction to your child’s silence. It can be a parent’s natural, caring response to speak for a child. By speaking for them, you may reduce your own and their anxiety, but preventing them from overcoming the mutism (Penner, 2015).
- Don’t offer rewards for something your child can’t do. Selective mutism is an inability to speak driven by anxiety. By asking your child to speak in exchange for a reward is like offering your artistic spouse a million dollars to complete a calculus equation (Penner, 2015).
- Don’t try to understand the “rule” of a child with selective mutism. Children with selective mutism divide the world into those people, places, and activities in which they speak and those in which they do not. These boundaries are rigid, and trying to understand the why behind your child’s rules may only cause frustration (Penner, 2015).
- Don’t expect “please” and “thank you.” Courtesies such as please, thank you, hello, and goodbye may be some of the most difficult words a child with selective mutism will learn to say, especially since they come with social expectations. The reality is that these children are anxious, not rude, and most will grow up to be thoughtful, polite adults (Penner, 2015).
- Don’t criticize your child. This one seems obvious, but criticism can hide in seemingly innocuous phrases. “You spoke so well last week. What’s going on this week?” or “Look how your brother is talking, can you try to be like him?” may not sound overtly critical to parents, but are often experienced as critical by children (Penner, 2015).
- Don’t give up. Many children with selective mutism never receive appropriate treatment. Many parents who seek help for their children report their own struggles with selective mutism throughout their lives. I applaud those parents who are unwilling to accept that their child should suffer in silence and encourage all parents to persevere in their search for treatment in the face of being repeatedly told, “Your child is just shy” (Penner, 2015)
Jessica LaMont, M.S., LBS
Penner, E. (2015, November 3). Dos and don’ts for parents of children with selective mutism. Good Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/dos-and-donts-for-parents-of-children-with-selective-mutism-1103155