–I woke up at my usual 5 a.m. to our screaming 20 month-old. Every day I pray he’ll sleep longer, but it doesn’t usually happen. So in the stillness of this birthday morning, as I sat and nursed my babe, I thought about what my 43 years of life have been about. What the trends, habits, and patterns have been. And what goals and dreams I have that I’d like to see realized in the next decades ahead.
I pray to be able to do God’s will, not just my own.
I’d like to break the habit of anger and not ruin potentially happy moments by my stubbornness.
I want to believe in myself and have more confidence that what I’m doing is right and good.
I pledge to listen more and scream less.
I realize I am blessed and I am grateful for the love and support my family offers me on a daily basis (gracias mami!!!).
I know I have a specific purpose in life and I pray I fulfill that as best as I can.
I don’t want to have more time, I want to fully enjoy the time I have.
I am thankful I get to be a mom and experience the utter joys, the routine, the grueling schedule, and the fullness of spirit.
I am amazed by my husband’s determination and love, and cherish the moment God glued us together.
I see I need to grow in many areas and welcome the journey.
I remember that I am dust on this Ash Wednesday, and to dust I shall return, so I vow to make the most out of the time I am here.
At the beginning of every year, we make plans, we get inspired, we think how we can grow closer to God, to our spouses, how we can be better parents, etc. etc. There is such fresh potential every January. But by February, it already feels like the year is half-way done, because it’s almost Spring Break, and then Easter, and soon the grocery store will bring out Halloween candy, and then we all know it’s Christmas, and BAM, the year is over.
Time flies. We know. But the media, our schedules, and technology rush us even more. There is an undercurrent of urgency in our lives that I want to stop. I try to go with the flow as much as possible. But I FEEL RUSHED.
My main wish this year (besides health and happiness) is to LIVE THE MOMENT. It sounds passé, perhaps, but I believe it’s the key to joy. It’s essential to be able to hear God’s whispers and to be in-tune with our true purpose.
A very personal goal this year is to help my daughter continue to find her brave voice in social settings. She’s come such a long way since we got the diagnosis of Selective Mutism a year ago. She’s answering questions, raising her hand and being more independent at restaurants, the park, and the store. But since she started at her new school in August, she hasn’t spontaneously spoken to her peers. Am I obsessive? Should I not worry so much? Should I just “let her go”? What’s the big deal? I’ve heard it all from friends and family. It’s a big deal because she’s not expressing herself, giving her opinion, sharing with ANYONE from 8am-3pm. Is this life-threatening? No, but it’s isolating, it’s frustrating and debilitating to remain silent all day because of anxiety.
My daughter is a gift. All my children are. And when I got a poem from my girl this morning, and a Pokemon drawing from my lil guy, I realized I had all I needed.
Thank you Lord for this light-filled life you have given me.
(Picture above is me in Spain, about 5 years old, passionately eating cake, as I plan to do today.)
–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.
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.
–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.
–She took 9 months, 5 days and 36 hours to come into this world. I tell her now that before she came into my belly, she was sitting next to God, looking down from heaven, choosing her mami and papi. And she took a long time to make her decision. We went through 3 years of fertility drugs until we finally had Y in our arms.
To this day, she takes her time doing most things. Putting on clothes, brushing her teeth, eating her food, going to the bathroom. And it drives me crazy. I am a non-stop-fast-paced -multi-tasker. There is no doubt that God knew what he was doing when he paired us up. The extra-extroverted mom and the observant-introverted daughter. We are both learning our lessons. Maybe me more than her at this point.
Every job I’ve ever had has been one revolving around people and conversation: hostess at Bennigan’s, sales at The Limited, Spanish tutor and translator, video-jockey, reporter, and meteorologist. Now in my greatest job of all, I am learning the most valuable lessons from my 5.5 year-old daughter. She invites me to slow down, enjoy the silence, just hold hands and walk without talking, do one thing at a time.
I’m reading the fantastic book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. It’s making me look at everything through a different lens. I think I’m getting to understand my daughter better than ever. Since she was a baby, she’s preferred my arms rather than a strangers. She observes before interacting. She likes to listen and not talk. Laugh and not tell the joke. Get candy without running to the piñata. Have her birthday cake without a song. And I’m sure she loves gymnastics because she doesn’t have to talk.
We were at the grocery store just the other day and an older man approached us.
This is an ideal example of what Cain writes about in her book. Why do we think that extroverts are more charismatic, smarter, better leaders? Why does something have to be wrong with my daughter because she doesn’t want to answer a stranger? “Introversion is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Yet some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.”
I have taught my daughter to say hello and thank you, and be polite to those around her. To do to others what she’d like to have done onto her. But she is such an introvert, that she innately has a very tough time communicating. Even saying her name. This is not something she will “outgrow”. She will likely just learn to adapt to her environment better as she gets older. But she will always be an introvert. Just as I always will be an extrovert. I might tone down my “diarrhea of the mouth” as I see necessary, but I will always like to talk and be involved in group activities.
I’ve been thinking of a list of things that I hope Y will like to do in the future, more than speak in public or communicate with large groups:
- Listen to God’s voice
- Learn another language
- Sew a button
- Write a poem
- Find her passion
- Feel acceptance and gratitude
- Be self confident
- Express her emotions
- Love and be loved to the fullest
- Find the thing she was born to do
Susan Cain, in her TED conference (http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html) reminds us that “introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated”.
She made three requests: