How do you know if your child is “just shy” or if it’s something more? How do you know when to intervene in social situations and when to let your child do that talking? How do you go about helping children with anxiety? These are questions many parents ask as they navigate the tundra of childhood anxiety and selective mutism.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association describes selective mutism as, “A child [that] does not speak in certain situations, like at school, but speaks at other times, like at home or with friends”. Whether a parent, educator, babysitter, or friend, here are some ways you could be helping children with anxiety:
For children with selective mutism, familiar environments can help ease transition and conversation with new people. Because of this, try to anticipate stressors in your child’s life. Perhaps these stressors are the first day of school or going to a babysitter’s house. In order to ease the transition, think of ways you can incorporate one new transition at a time. Consider meeting your child’s new teacher on familiar turf before walking into the new classroom. Would he/she be willing to meet you at your child’s favorite park? Or, would your new babysitter be willing to come over to your house for an evening and learn about your child’s interests while the entire family is home? Anticipating stressors in your child’s life is a way of helping your child with anxiety. It also may be a way to get your child to talk when placed in a new environment, knowing they have already met their new teacher or a couple of their new classmates.
Exemplify Healthy Stress
Often, it helps for children to see anxiety as something everyone faces. By talking to your child about your first day of school and how you dealt with the stress in a healthy way, you are fostering a household that celebrates new adventures but also recognizes that they can be scary. Consider reading books about children who have gone through similar transitions (i.e. going to school, going to the dentist, moving, welcoming a new sibling). Your librarian or school counselor may be a great resource for some book recommendations! These stories help familiarize your child with new contexts in a non-threatening way. Don’t be afraid to tell your child about your stress in a developmentally appropriate way. Perhaps, “Sometimes I get nervous when I meet new people at work. It makes me feel like I don’t want to talk. But I try to tell the new person my name and ask what their name is too. This makes me feel less nervous and more friendly”. Children can benefit from your honesty and the realization that everyone feels anxious occasionally and there are ways to handle that anxiety in a positive way.
When your child exhibits progress in dealing with his/her anxiety or begins to become comfortable and conversational in a setting that was initially overwhelming, celebrate it! Consider writing down what your child did, how it made him/her feel, and asking them to draw a picture. Hang it somewhere special in the home and share their story with siblings and parents. If you feel it’s appropriate, consider celebrating with a special dinner or dessert. After all, this is a big success for your child and it’s worth recognizing. Ask your child’s teacher to email you with these successes as well. Let them know you want to celebrate their progress in this area.
This is an area of childhood development where you’ll need your trusted village. Don’t expect yourself or your child to face this alone. Consider contacting your school, local hospital, or county’s educational center to get in contact with a speech and language pathologist and/or child psychologist. These professionals are experts on selective mutism and anxiety. They will be able to help you determine the best route for treatment and at-home implementation of strategies. Exhibit your willingness to follow through with treatment recommendations and strategies and don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions!