Maybe your child is too loud, too active, too distracted, or too aggressive. But too quiet? Is there such a thing?
We’ve all heard of being afraid of spiders or roaches or public speaking. But afraid of speaking anywhere outside the home?
A common thread in my life has been talking. I’ve been a cheerleader, a hostess, an interpreter, a teacher, a salesperson, and a reporter. I talk to strangers, I have no issues speaking in front of large crowds, I love starting a conversation, I like talking for hours to anyone, any time, any where about anything.
Our daughter Y, though, is more like her dad (who didn’t say more to me than a quick “Hi!” the first time we met). She is observant, curious, and comfortable with silence. She can also be explosive, rambunctious, and comedically contagious at home. She sings beautifully, has theatrical talent, and bends with flexibility like a gymnast. But outside of the house she has always been very reserved and quiet, never saying hello to anyone, barely answering simple questions like “how old are you?” or “what is your name?”
As a baby, I was the only one that could hold her and I couldn’t put her down. I carried her everywhere around the house. I cooked with one arm, holding her with another. Going in the car was an excruciating trip of deafening screams. She was intense, super-sensitive and did not like to sleep. Noises and light bothered her, and she nursed ALL-THE-TIME. Even my mom who has had five kids (and had 8 grandkids at the time) would tell me that she had never heard a baby cry like Y did. I researched and found Dr. Sears’ explanation of “high-needs babies” and it fit. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/fussy-baby/high-need-baby/12-features-high-need-baby
As she grew up, everyone told me “she’s just shy, she’ll outgrow it!”, or “don’t over-protect her so much”, or “put her in more social settings, classes or camps” and she’ll get used to talking more.
When she was 2.5, I was pregnant with our second, and we decided to put her in pre-school. She had a teacher that spoke Spanish, thank God, because I was so worried she wouldn’t understand anything since we only speak Spanish at home. The teacher took pictures of the kids every day and would post them on Shutterfly. And everyday I would see the same thing: Y holding on to her stuffed Alex the lamb, with the saddest look you’ve ever seen. We kept trying and encouraged her to have fun and learn at school but after two months we decided we were taking her out. The pictures were heart-breaking and spoke a thousand words: she was miserable.
We eventually put her back in school at 3.5, just twice a week, and though she would cry a lot, she started liking it. Still, her teachers would tell me that she didn’t talk very much to anyone. I always attributed it to her being shy and not speaking English very well.
Birthday parties were always tough. She would seem angry and cry, clutching on to me the whole time. She hated piñatas, pictures, and people screaming. Even at her own birthday parties. I decided to cancel her 4th party because she didn’t want so many people to come over. And at her 5th and 6th bday parties I decided to ask everyone to NOT SING happy birthday because it upset her so much. She did not like being the center of attention. At 7, she was the most comfortable she has ever been at her own party because it was a small group and it was at home.
This January, her teacher told me she was concerned because she didn’t see Y talking to any of her friends and that she barely talked to HER. It’s as if a dagger dug into my heart. Why didn’t she talk to her friends? It was tough listening to the teacher say that we should maybe see a speech therapist. I wanted to blame her and thought that she should know better and help my daughter rather than pawn her off to a therapist. Besides, my daughter talked, and has no speech issues, I thought. Plus, we had already gone to a therapist when Y was 5 and she said there were no challenges. What the hell did the teacher think?? I was so hurt.
But suddenly, as I put the kids to sleep, all the details lined up and I started to think about it in slow-motion. The pieces of the puzzle came together. I heard God’s whisper: “Yes, that’s what it is. It’s going to be ok.” I remembered what the therapist had said, that Y could have “selective mutism”, which is when kids don’t talk in certain settings because they feel anxious. I had shrugged it off when she was 5, but now I knew that’s what she had. SELECTIVE MUTISM. I hadn’t even looked it up because I discarded it back then. And the therapist moved far north of Houston and we never saw her again. But now there was no doubt in my mind.
I was partly relieved and partly horrified. Numb, unsure, confused.
I ran into the kitchen that night when it all came together, and told my husband. It all clicked. We sat and read everything we could on-line. THIS WAS IT. We cried. We prayed. We held each other in the unknown space of what this really meant and what we were going to do.
It’s been 7 months since that night, and I am finally ready to share our story.
There is little research on selective mutism. Kids are often misdiagnosed or labeled as extremely shy or stubborn. But it’s estimated that 1 in 140 kids have this anxiety “challenge”, and it is usually in school that they become mute. These kids can speak perfectly at home, they are even LOUD and very verbal when they feel safe, but at social settings and at school, they do not speak.
As stated in www.selectivemutism.org : “More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety. This disorder is quite debilitating and painful to the child. Children and adolescents with Selective Mutism have an actual FEAR of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to speak and communicate. Many children with Selective Mutism have great difficulty responding or initiating communication in a nonverbal manner; therefore social engagement may be compromised in many children when confronted by others or in an overwhelming setting where they sense a feeling of expectation.”
There are different shades of it, as with many syndromes and disorders. Some kids can’t even speak to anyone other than their mother. Others feel ok talking to kids but not adults. With Y, she mainly has reservations talking to kids but she is also usually silent around adults she doesn’t know.
It’s been a relief to find out more about SM. It’s been a road map to make us all stronger. I always knew she was more than just “shy”. And I am so glad that I have followed my gut. It’s been challenging and lonely at times, seeing that no one understands what I’m going through. Getting people’s critical opinions about my over-protective and attachment parenting style has been rough, as if that’s the cause of Y’s SM. I know it isn’t.
We’ve been in therapy since February. I think it’s planting seeds inside Y, giving her strength and knowledge. But I think what has helped tremendously has been an intensive, week-long program/camp we went to called “Brave Bunch” at FIU in Miami. A NYTimes reporter was there doing a story on the camp while we were there to bring awareness to SM. Here’s the article:
The camp simulates a classroom setting, pairs each child with a counselor, and exposes the kids to activities where they learn to use their brave voice. We also had parenting classes, and got information and tools to use with our kids to help them use their voice at the grocery store, the park, the library, parties, at school and any other social setting. It was refreshing to meet other parents who have similar stories. It connected us and validated all we deal with on a daily basis. And it provided tools that have been extremely useful to help Y find her voice when she is in public.
She has made remarkable progress since the camp. We are taking it one day at a time, packing our patience, and praying that God continues to lead us as he always has done.
So what can you do if you meet a child with SM, or the next time you see my sweet Y? Please don’t think they are being rude or that they dislike you. They are really trying to overcome their anxiety.
1. Don’t ask questions the first 30 mins.
2. Don’t “expect” a hello. We are working hard at that.
3. Praise her or make a comment about her without making her the center of attention. Make it quick, like “I like your shoes”, or “so happy we get to see u today”.
4. If you can have one-on-one time with her, comment on what she’s doing, (like a sportscaster who comments on the players). “You are drawing that rainbow so carefully”, “Look at how well you jump rope”, “I like the way you bounced that ball”.
5. Ask her forced questions like “do you like pink or purple?”. That way she can have a choice of answers. But avoid yes and no questions because she can always nod or shake her head and remain silent.
6. Once you do ask her a question, wait at least 5 seconds for her to answer. Just wait, don’t answer for her or give up. You might need to ask again, and wait again. If she doesn’t answer the question after 3 tries, move on to something else.
7. Don’t take anything personally. She is a treasure that must be handled with patience, love and understanding.
God really does have a sense of humor, pairing us up as mother-daughter. I am an extreme extrovert, Y an extreme introvert. There is no doubt in my mind that we are in this together because we are meant to learn from one another and upgrade ourselves to the level God wants us to be. The road has been rough, with kicking and screaming, fits and fury, complete sadness at not knowing what to do. But there have also been such abundantly fulfilling moments, cloud-lifting joy, and immense connection, that I wouldn’t trade anything for the world. Y is truly teaching us how to “be still and know that I am God”- Psalm 46:10
Look at the Selective Mutism tab here on my website. It’s new, and I look forward to posting more people’s stories and updates of those who are dealing with SM. There are also AMAZING groups on Facebook. Here are some useful websites with more information about SM.