Selective mutism: Helping your child find a voice



Estimated Reading Time 3 Minutes

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.

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