It’s back-to-school and Cyber-Monday, but it’s also the first Monday of Advent and St. Andrew’s Day. Before becoming Jesus’ disciple, St. Andrew followed John the Baptist. Jesus met Andrew and asked him “What do you seek?” and Andrew answered, “I want to know where Jesus lives.” And that’s how Andrew became Jesus’ first disciple.
I love that story. We don’t hear about Andrew as much as his brother Peter, but I admire how he answered Jesus and I think it’s important to remember what it is we seek during Christmas.
My phone died earlier this month and I spent two days without it. I felt a little lost and disconnected. When I went to the store for a new one, I found out that I was eligible for an “upgrade”. I got a bigger, better phone. Clearer reception, stunning pictures, and great shortcuts, just to name a few of the advantages.
My life can sometimes revolve around gadgets, calendars, our kids’ school or extracurricular activities. But when I seek Jesus and allow myself to place HIM at the center of my world, no matter what’s going on, I find that I get crystal clear reception, amazing mental pictures, and creative shortcuts to make things easier both physically and spiritually.
Just like Andrew upgraded from John the Baptist to the Messiah, I want to challenge myself to do something every day to keep moving towards Jesus. Would you like to be a part of the challenge? I’ll post an Advent Action and feel free to try it.
Advent Action: Be conscious of the time you spend on your phone/gadget and substitute some of that time with something that connects you to Jesus. For example, if you look at your phone every hour, try to look at it every other hour, and the other time pray or open the Bible to see what God has to say to you.
–Whether your child has Selective Mutism or not, the likelihood that he or she will experience some form of anxiety in her childhood is high. Whether it’s before a test, a recital, a presentation, or a big game, they might have butterflies, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat. The thing is, SM children feel that on a daily basis, not just before an important event. And their anxiety is so high that they can’t talk because if they did, they would feel even more anxiety so not talking is kind of a way of coping with their anxiety, if that makes sense. SM can be so confusing, so different from kid to kid.
When we went to Florida International University’s Brave Bunch Program in Miami this past summer, we wanted to learn what we could do to help reduce the anxiety, help our sweet girl, Y, to cope with her overwhelming emotions and find her voice. The program leader was Dr. Jamie Furr, who has dedicated her career to “cognitive-behavioral treatment of childhood anxiety and disruptive behavior disorders, with a focus on preschool mental health.” It was two days of evaluations and five days of “treatment” at the camp. Fifteen other SM kids were in the classroom with Y. Each had a personal counselor to help them individually deal with their fears. The goal was to get them to be comfortable in the environment where they are usually mute: school. It’s like exposure therapy. Confronting that of which you are afraid.
Our kids went to the Brave Bunch camp from 9am-3pm and then we parents went in from 3-5pm for our own training. It was empowering to get the right tools, heart-warming to meet others who REALLY know what it’s like to be a parent of an SM child, and it was challenging to learn about what will be required to help our children use their brave voice.
I took many notes, asked numerous questions, shared too many stories, and learned immensely valuable lessons that have helped us tremendously with Y. We saw results the third day. Y asked for a brownie at a Starbucks. We couldn’t believe it! She had never done that before. Never ever ordered at a restaurant, at an ice-cream shop, had never asked a question at the library, made a comment to a cashier, answered a question from a stranger. And here she was, ordering at Starbucks. My husband was so choked up that he could barely place his own order. Needless to say, we will never forget that triumphant moment.
Since the camp, in July, Y has blossomed beautifully with most adults when not around other children. She now orders, makes eye contact and even answers short questions from strangers. My heart oozes with pride and joy each time. What we are still working on is lessening her anxiety at social events where there are kids and adults. We’re slowly trying to get her to use her strong voice and talk to her peers at school, at the park, at parties, at festivals etc. That continues to be challenging, but we see slight improvements.
So what “magic” took place in Miami? I believe it was the continuous, 5-day routine that she had to take part of. Each child was told that they would receive “checks” on a bravery chart for every time they did something positive. It could be simply walking to their seat, smiling at a joke, moving towards another kid, or something bigger like saying a word or answering a question. After 10 checks, they got a coin, and at the end of the day, they could get prizes from a treasure chest. These kids need major reinforcement and praise. From 9am to 3pm they were exposed to activities with other kids, gently pushed towards the goal of speaking. And most of them talked every day. And the more they heard their own voices and saw what they were capable of doing, the more they chipped away at their anxiety.
I learned so much. Y learned so much. She had a really tough time. She didn’t do the show and tell at the end of the week. And to many, that was the true test of success at the camp. To me it didn’t matter. She succeeded by going through the camp and pushing herself to do things she’d never done before. My baby girl walked through the jungle every day and confronted her deepest fears. She came through and survived, strong and resilient. I am proud of her silent strength. Her raw energy and truth.
The biggest thing I realized is that I can’t be a mind reader and I can’t always keep talking for her. The longer she’s silent, the harder it will be for her to speak.
Here are five things I learned about dealing with Selective Mutism and anxiety:
1. Anxiety is a wave.
Your body will restore itself after an “anxiety attack”. You just have to learn to ride the wave. Preferably, you can practice coping mechanisms (like breathing, exercise, or music) to prevent the attack, but once you reach the peak of the wave, there is no coping, there is just riding along. This knowledge helped tremendously when my daughter has episodes of extreme anxiety. I just tell her I am there for her and I stay with her until it’s over. It’s not easy, but I know that it will be over in its own time. If I can re-direct her, go outside, get water, or somehow lessen the intensity of the wave, I try. But sometimes it feels like a tsunami of anxiety and there is not much I can do except be present.
2. If I do nothing, I can expect nothing to change. In order to help our children we must do the work. And it’s hard. Sometimes we don’t want to do it. And sometimes I think “she’s better” or “she’ll get better”, and the one I hear the most: “she’ll outgrow it!” But for any of the above to happen, we as parents have to help them. Just like a child can never learn to walk if we carry them everywhere, or learn to swim if we don’t put them in the water! With anxiety, we have to expose them to that which they fear the most: talking. We have to steer them through the forest of emotions.
3. Use labeled praise. Meaning, be specific. Don’t just say “good job”. Say: good job making eye contact, or smiling at that lady, or walking by your friend, or staying in ballet class, or going to the birthday party, or “I’m proud of you for going to school because I know it’s not easy”. It’s not a pep rally around their talking, it’s not making them the center of attention to make them uncomfortable. It’s letting them know you see their actions, and you are there supporting them. Praising them gives them confidence, builds their self esteem, puts into words what they are doing then and makes them aware of the things they are doing well. Because SM kids sometimes think they do things poorly.
4. Use a brave chart to reward all those things you praised them for. One check each time, and after 10 checks, they get a coin. Can be real or fake but they will eventually use those coins to “buy” things from a treasure chest you’ll create. I’ve bought things like books, bracelets, candy, movies and other small gifts that I know she’ll like and put them in the chest. Bigger items are worth 4 coins, so she has to “work” for the better prizes. I really didn’t think this would work for my 7.5 yr old, but it’s been magical in motivating her. We also have a brave chart at school. The teacher keeps track of the checks and she tells me at the end of the day or week how many checks she’s gotten.
5. The Index Card Game. Write down on an index card 3 questions that you know your child can answer easily like:
How old are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite color? Favorite food, movie, princess/action hero? Favorite restaurant? How many brothers/sisters do you have?
Practice the three questions you choose with them over and over. Carry the index card with you and explain to your child that you’ll practice this game with people. When you see someone at the store, ask them if they would mind playing the index card question game and tell them you are working hard at using our strong voice. Ask them to chose a question to ask your child. That will help them answer quick questions they’re familiar with and establish their voice with people outside of the house. You can use this at school with teachers.
There is so much more I could write about, but it’s late and I’m tired. I’ll continue to write about this topic and welcome your comments and stories. Please share your journey with Selective Mutism. Let’s raise awareness not just this month, but every day! Let’s help our children know they are not alone and that there IS something that will help them. PRACTICE using their voice. Little by little. And being patient is the toughest challenge. Don’t lose faith. Don’t give up on your little one. They want to be heard.
With getting ready for kindergarten for Y, mother’s day out for F, making meal plans, training for the triathlon, (which was on Labor Day..more on that in a bit), family health scares, re-doing our bathroom countertops, and awaiting my dad’s arrival from Spain this next week, I have felt overwhelmed. But forget my personal stuff. What about the Syrian civil war?
Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting today. He spoke in front of a crowd of at least 100,000 people in St. Peter’s Square. Two sentences stand out:
1. “Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!”.
2. “At this point I ask myself: Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”.
If you have a moment, pray tonight. Pray every night. I’ve included the prayer from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website at the bottom of this post. It’s beautifully written.
How does so much pile up on our plate? And I don’t even have a 9-5 job! Don’t know what I’d do if I did. But maybe because I don’t, I offer to do much more than is possible and then end up feeling this way.
So, the triathlon went really well. No medal, but personally felt it was my best. The night before the event, Y asked me if I was going to win.
“No”, I said.
“How do you know you won’t win?”
“Because there are a lot of other girls that are better than me.”
“I think you are going to win mami!”
“Thank you baby, but I’m not doing it to win. I’m doing it to challenge myself and finish my goal.”
I’m not sure she understood it, but I know she eventually will.
How do we know who we are if we don’t challenge ourselves, forgive our flaws, sharpen our strengths?
Why do we fight wars? To win what? Territory? Power? Glory?
I believe a simple beginning to solve global conflicts actually starts at home. With our families. How can we even think of solving issues like the Syrian civil war, if we can’t even get along with people in our own family? Practically every single person I know has some sort of problem with a family member. Something so deep and painful that it can’t be forgiven, forgotten, or resolved.
So how in the world are we ever going to live in peace, if as individuals, we can’t communicate or accept the people in our family?
How is a personal victory ever going to mean anything if on the other side of the world, there are mothers crying over their dead children?
We have a lot of work to do, and I suggest we start at home. Making peace with our supposed loved ones. And maybe little by little, we can begin to turn around this “culture of death”, as Father Troy from our church, calls it.
“Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion, the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope. Hear the cries of the people of Syria; bring healing to those suffering from the violence, and comfort to those mourning the dead. Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors in their care and welcome for refugees. Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.
O God of hope and Father of mercy, your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs. Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies. Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
For the people of Syria, that God may strengthen the resolve of leaders to end the fighting and choose a future of peace.
We pray to the Lord. Amen.”
–My daughter Y started kindergarten summer school last week. We figured it would be a good way to transition her into going to school every day, since she’s used to going only twice a week. I know. I’ve waited quite a while to introduce her to a structured school life. But I don’t regret for a minute having spent all these years with her at home.
Sure, there were days I wanted to jump out the window and scream. Mostly though, I’ve wished I had a “pause button” or a video camera constantly ON to remember all the sweet little things. I’ve tried to keep a journal for each of them and I write memorable things they’ve said or done. There are so many!
So she’ll be going to summer school this month of July, and then straight through until regular classes begin August 7th. (Scream now!!)
Y cried several mornings, saying she didn’t want to go. That there were going to be a lot of kids. I hugged her and told her that it was o.k. to cry. That it was normal to feel a little nervous because I too was feeling that way.
I always draw a heart on her hand whenever we are not going to be together. I tell her that she can look at the heart whenever she thinks of me, and I will be doing the same.
I was the one shedding tears in the parking lot the first day, realizing that this was it. The start of her school years. Such a long road, it seems. And this is the beginning of her independence. Of her maturing, learning, making friends, growing into her own person without me being there all the time.
Though I wanted and will always want a detailed explanation of every moment of her day, I know she did and will do many things I might never know about. And that’s hard because I want details and stories and emotions to be shared.
She HAS told me about a girl who talks a lot and held her hand, wanting to be her friend. About a rug they gave her for story time. About her teacher’s hair. About another little girl having similar shoes. About a bell they ring when they want them to stop what they’re doing and stand up.
I am in heaven that we’ve survived thus far and that she’s sharing the some delicious details about her first days of kindergarten.