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Breaking the Silence: Strategies for Helping Children with Selective Mutism

It can be unsettling to see a child suffering from Selective Mutism. You probably aren’t sure how to help them or where to turn. This condition can interrupt daily life for this child, causing them to suffer in school and routine social situations.


Yet, there’s hope. There are several strategies you can try with a child with selective mutism to help them manage this anxiety disorder.


Let’s explore these strategies and a step-by-step guide for how to implement them in the child’s daily life.


What is Selective Mutism?


This complex anxiety disorder is sometimes difficult to diagnose. With selected mutism, the child does not choose when they speak and when they do not. The failure to speak is also not about the child’s knowledge of the language.


Instead, the child repeatedly shows a failure to speak in specific social situations. There may be certain people the child is more comfortable speaking around. There may also be certain situations in which the child speaks freely. Yet, he or she becomes selectively mute in other situations or the same situation around different people. The variables differ from child to child.


This anxiety disorder is often diagnosed between the ages of 3 to 6, around the time that school begins. However, selective mutism is not limited to school settings. Children may exhibit symptoms of this disorder around extended family members or in community settings.


Along with not being able to speak, they may have a “deer in the headlights” look, which is characterized by a lack of facial expressions and sometimes difficulty making eye contact.


According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the cause of the condition is complex. It can often be attributed to a combination of the following:

  • Genetics

  • social phobia

  • separation anxiety

  • obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Parenting style

  • Delays in speech or fine motor skills

  • Shy temperament

  • Overactive autonomic nervous system


A Speech-Language Pathologist is essential in the diagnosis of selective mutism. They assess and differentiate it from other disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, etc.


Strategies for Helping Children with Selective Mutism


On your journey to help your child with selective mutism break the silence, caregivers can try the following strategies. To truly treat the condition, a speech pathologist is necessary, but these tips will give you some ways to help reinforce what the speech therapist is working on with your child.


Avoid Negative Reinforcement


Well-intentioned people try to speak for the child with selective mutism in situations where they are unable to speak. However, this behavior works to negatively reinforce the child’s non-speaking behaviors.


The University of Central Florida explains that negative reinforcement is when “[s]omething is removed to increase the likelihood of a behavior.”


In the case of speaking for the child, you are removing their need to speak, so they continue to not speak in that situation.


Although it may seem natural, especially as a parent or caregiver, to swoop in a rescue a child struggling to speak, they need to try to do it on their own.


Give them plenty of time to speak. They need time to process questions and formulate an answer the way they can. This may seem like forever to you, but it is necessary in helping them to communicate in difficult situations.


If they still can’t speak, try giving them alternative ways of communicating like writing down their answer on a notepad or whiteboard. If they are pre-literate, consider teaching them or asking them to use gestures, pictures, or other forms of non-verbal communication.





Acknowledge Their Strengths


When your child is struggling to communicate in certain scenarios, it can be easy to focus on that behavior rather than all the ways they are doing well.


Even if your child is still not managing to speak in social situations, they may be trying to participate in these situations non-verbally. Observe your child’s behaviors closely, and praise them for their efforts.


Be mindful of the types of praise you offer in public and in private. Non-verbal behaviors can be praised in public like you would with any other child. Praise for speaking more should be done in private to avoid embarrassing the child.


Social interaction is especially hard for children with selective mutism, so any progress toward communicating with others is worthy of praise. These children may struggle with low self-esteem, so reminding them of what they do well and their hard work can go a long way.


Don’t limit your praise to their speaking, though. There is so much your child can do! They may be great at art or sports or writing or any number of things. They still want praise for these activities, too. The child needs to know that they are more than their weaknesses and that they can accomplish great things, even if they have trouble speaking.


Understand the Nature of the Condition


As a caregiver, it’s important to realize that your child’s silence is not a choice. It is a social anxiety disorder. Mute children want to have play dates and interact in social settings, but they have social anxiety that is preventing them from speaking.


They also won’t likely have a pattern of behavior that you can understand. They may speak perfectly fine to one aunt but remain silent with another. The people, places, and activities that cause your child anxiety may not make sense to you, but your child can’t help their response.


So, even though offering your child a reward for speaking in certain situations, like a classroom setting, may seem like a way to motivate your child, it is counterproductive.


Be Mindful About What You Say


You may not realize it, but sometimes you can criticize a child with selective mutism unintentionally. Comparing your child’s speaking ability to siblings or comparing their speaking abilities from one instance to the next doesn’t seem to be harmful, but children usually perceive them as criticism.


This criticism can discourage the child from speaking or affect their mental health.


Additionally, questioning the child when they are struggling to speak can compound the issue. They are already having difficulties and the questions pressure the child further. You don’t even realize that the questions are becoming overwhelming, but your child simply can’t process the questions when they are already struggling to speak.


Encourage Physical Activity


Children with selective mutism still need to get out and exercise and interact with others. Plus, studies show that exercising can reduce anxiety in people experiencing symptoms.


This will also give you a chance to bond with your child. Adolescents and young children alike will enjoy playing a sport or exercising with you. They could try organized sports, running, cardio, yoga, or even a dance party. Get your kid moving their body to help them manage their anxiety, especially after a difficult interaction.


This can help boost your child’s mood and relieve some of the symptoms of anxiety.


Make Mistakes Seem Less Scary


Many people, not just children with selective mutism, have trouble overcoming mistakes. They may feel like a failure if they can’t speak correctly or say the wrong thing. However, they are learning opportunities and chances for your child to practice.


Encourage your child to see each speaking opportunity as a learning experience and don’t punish or criticize your child for mistakes. As long as they are trying, that’s all that matters.


This includes when children fail to say niceties like “please and thank you.” You may be worried others will perceive your child as rude, but they aren’t trying to be rude when they leave these out. Your child likely isn’t trying to be oppositional, they just struggle to say the words sometimes. They may even have trouble making eye contact. Let them know that they will get better with more practice and that you understand they are trying.


Try to make talking in social situations seem like something exciting or gamelike, not a big hurdle to overcome. Your child takes a lot of cues based on the way you react to situations.


If you are looking for more resources to navigate through this journey with your child, check out Selective Mutism Association’s website.


Strategies for the Classroom


The most common place where Selective Mutism interrupts your child’s daily life is in school. Often, the disorder becomes most apparent when a child enters elementary school, especially at the beginning of the school year.


There are several ways to advocate for your child in the classroom. Teachers can also use these tips to help them to accommodate children with selective mutism in their classrooms.


Get an IEP


An Individual Education Plan (IEP), is a plan created by the special education department at your school in conjunction with you and the teachers to outline the strengths and weaknesses of your child and make appropriate learning goals.


This plan gives your child an opportunity for special education services. It also provides them with legal protection against discrimination in the classroom.


To be considered for an IEP, children must undergo an evaluation. Once they are determined eligible for an IEP, a plan is created by stakeholders and is implemented in the school environment.


Small Group Work


Whole group discussions can be a nightmare for some children with selective mutism. Small groups and pairs can be better for getting these children to speak up and answer questions in class. Try to identify other students in the classroom that the child feels comfortable speaking around to set them up for success.


Caregivers can help their children by letting teachers know the particulars of their child’s dos and don’ts when it comes to speaking.


Allow Alternatives


Some assignments where speaking in front of the class can be difficult for kids with selective mutism. Allowing them to present these to a smaller group or the teacher alone can go a long way in helping the child complete the task.


Parents can ask for this in the IEP meeting or let the teacher know ahead of time that there may be issues with presenting. Most teachers are willing to adapt the assignment for children with selective mutism.





Getting Treatment


In addition to the aforementioned strategies, it is important to get your child seen by a clinician. This disorder is categorized as an anxiety disorder, so it requires a behavioral approach. Behavioral therapists are trained in providing support to children with childhood anxiety disorders.


Not only can they assess and diagnose the disorder, but they can also work in conjunction with behavioral therapists to treat Selective Mutism. Behavior therapy involves gradual exposure, contingency management, and stimulus fading. This treatment plan can work to get an anxious child to overcome their fear of speaking.


Some children with Selective Mutism will also have delays in language development. In these cases, you’ll need to seek out a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) to assist the Behavioral therapist in working with the child.


RiteCare Clinics can help connect you with a skilled SLP to get your child the treatment he or she needs. With locations in both North and South California, we can provide a variety of care to patients with speech, learning, and language disorders. These SLPs will provide your child with practice speaking in social situations and reinforce successful speaking experiences. These services are offered free of charge.


A combination of these two treatment programs can give your child the ability to increase their verbal responses.


Conclusion:


As a concerned caregiver, you want to provide your child who has selective mutism with the best quality of life. There are several strategies you can try at home to encourage your child to speak more and give them the love and praise they need. You can also advocate for your child in the classroom to reinforce positive speaking behaviors.


These strategies, paired with behavioral and/or speech-language therapy, will help your child overcome their fear of speaking. Breaking the silence of selective mutism is a journey you and your child will take together. Practice, perseverance, and patience are the keys to success.


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