By Sharon Longo
REGION – Any grandparent or great-aunt or uncle knows how much fun it is to visit with their grandchild, great-niece or nephew. What if that child becomes fearful in social situations outside of the home or even inside the home when people other than their parents or siblings are present? That is the case for many children and teens with selective mutism, rendering them speechless when around others outside of the immediate family.
What is selective mutism?
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder whereby a child who is usually talkative and friendly becomes silent and fearful in social situations outside of the home or when others besides immediate family are present inside the familiar setting.
Think about the last time you had to give a speech or talk to a large group of people. Even the most outgoing person will take a sip of water or clear their throat before speaking to avoid that “frog voice” moment. Most people don’t realize that the anxiety people feel at that moment (however little it may be) is what causes the vocal cords to tense up and create that hoarseness. Imagine if the anxiety inside were 50 or 100 times worse. A child with selective mutism is so anxious in social situations that they feel unable to speak, as if frozen with fear. Think of it as shyness times ten.
But you know me!
Many grandparents or other older adult relatives or friends of the family don’t see the little ones in their life every day, or even that often, in some cases. Sometimes grandma and grandpa might live several states away, and sometimes seeing more distant relatives might not happen for months at a time or longer. It can be frustrating to go in with open arms to greet the children only to have one of them cling to their parent or hide behind them, especially if the last time you visited they warmed up a little and you thought progress had been made.
What can you do to help?
Being patient with the child is important, and don’t take it personally if they are experiencing this anxiety around you. This is something that happens in many social settings, including school and other familiar places they attend daily.
“Children and adolescents with selective mutism often struggle to find their voices in unfamiliar settings or with less familiar people due to anxiety,” said Kaitlyn Wilbur-Smith, Psy.D., PMH-C. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and director of selective mutism services at the Boston Child Study Center. “Oftentimes, these kids have a hard time speaking in school, but they may also be nonverbal around extended family, neighbors, family friends, and others,” she explained.
“It’s important that you refrain from criticizing the child for not speaking to you,” Wilbur-Smith continued. “They will be more likely to feel brave enough to speak around those who are warm, patient, and understanding of their anxiety around talking. When asking a child with selective mutism a question, use forced-choice questions, such as, ‘Would you like to play with the puzzles or the markers?’ And provide ample wait time for the child to respond.”
Patience is important, she emphasized. “It may seem hard to wait in silence, but not pushing a child to respond right away or prompting them with another question provides them with space to consider their answer and find their brave voice,” Wilbur-Smith noted. “When a child speaks in an unfamiliar setting or with someone new, respond with praise, such as ‘I love hearing what you have to say’ or ‘Thanks for telling me.’ Treatment for selective mutism is not always linear, so patience and understanding will go a long way!”
What if a parent thinks it’s just shyness?
Sometimes a parent isn’t aware that there is a problem since the child will speak without any reserve around them and the siblings. When others visit, a parent may think the child is just being shy. However if that shyness continues, becoming more of a problem as the child attends school and still is not speaking, a grandparent might want to step in and state what they know. Explain to the parent that this might be more than shyness and ask them to speak with the child’s pediatrician.
“A grandparent should assist the parent in finding a practitioner who is competent in treating selective mutism and then ask to be part of a Zoom for extended family members to learn what to do,” said Jennifer Lish, Ph.D. Lish is a licensed psychologist and health services provider and director of the Worcester Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. “It’s also helpful to share what is learned with others, such as neighbors and friends of the family. So when the child comes to visit with grandparents or significant family members, everyone will be aware and cognizant of what works and what doesn’t.”
Love conquers all
Being there for the parents and the child or teen with selective mutism, and especially showing them kindness and empathy may not result in talkative behavior. It will, however, show how much you care. Feeling safe and loved is all anyone wants.
For more information, go to www.selectivemutism.org.