–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.