Selective mutism: Helping your child find a voice

By Elaheh Bos on November 01, 2012
As Sandy pushed the ParentsCanada magazine in front of me, the words ‘selective mutism’ flashed like Christmas lights. “I know what that is now,” she said. “Because of Naomi.” Our family knows too well what it is because we live with it.

At first, we wondered why our child, who was so happy, chatty, and seemingly fine at home, would be so ‘unwilling’ to talk at school. Finally, we learned that we were wrong. ‘Unwilling’ was, in reality, ‘unable’.

Sandy and I are suddenly invaded by two fearless knights dressed in handmade foil helmets and Sandy turns to Naomi. “Where are you going on your quest?” I have to remind myself that I don’t need to answer for her.

There are a few moments of silence before Naomi says “Dragon hunting.” Sandy smiles at me and I smile back. We are sharing a small victory.

It took more than a year of play dates and frequent interactions to get Naomi to talk to Sandy because she is an adult. Talking with other children is never a problem. Five minutes alone and they are blabbing away.

It took two years before Naomi talked at preschool. She finally progressed to answering her classmates, but she never addressed her teacher. Not once. Now we start at zero again in kindergarten. New school, new classmates, new teacher.

The two kids went back downstairs to resume their game. “How is she doing at school?” Sandy asks. “Is she talking in class yet?” No, but she likes school.

It is all she talks about when she comes back. It is, in fact, all she plays; taking attendance of her teddy bears and putting them in timeouts over and over again. (How can stuffed pigs and bears misbehave so much?) At home, she has a loud, slightly off key and absolutely amazing voice. At school, she is mute.

It’s hard to keep progressing while at the same time giving her room to set her own pace. Whenever something new is asked of her, a wall builds up.

It is the nature of the beast. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that can often pass undetected. When looking for a diagnosis, it can be as mute as the child it affects and so it is often overlooked by teachers and doctors. I was also blinded by the difference in her behaviour at home compared to outside, until I finally understood that her anxiety levels relate to where she is and who she is with.

Initially, I relied on the experience and advice from teachers and pediatricians which all ended with “It will pass, she’s just shy.” It did not pass.

The school administration offered few resources and a general sense of ‘what exactly do you want us to do?’ The teachers, on the other hand, were angels in disguise, demonstrating a genuine willingness to understand.

Then came the day when I saw the fear in her eyes, like a deer caught in the headlights, and I knew I had to organize my own research. I came home and sat at my computer for hours, searching for a link or a clue. The more stories I read, the more the pieces of our puzzle came together. I have learned that anxiety disorders, like all disorders, are complex and don’t get solved overnight.

Naomi’s struggles come from within. Fear. I understand fear, because Naomi and I are not so different. The most apparent difference is that, as a grown-up, I have learned to deal with fear and use it to push me forward. My promise to myself is that I will be better, stronger, happier when I overcome my fear. But try explaining that to a five-year-old.

There is no quick fix, no pill and no miracle cure because she is not sick. My daughter is a knight and fear is her inner dragon. It is part of her and it makes her stronger and weaker at the same time.

My role is to be both strong and patient. Sometimes I need to be her voice, but it is just a loan until she finds hers once again.

*The names in this article were changed.

Elaheh Bos is a stay-at-home mother of two girls. When she’s not volunteering at the school or playing dress-up, she doubles as a writer and illustrator.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.

By Elaheh Bos| November 01, 2012

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