Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer and the Child With Selective Mutism: 10 Tips for Parents

For the child with Selective Mutism, summer can have both positive and negative implications.  For some children, making the transition from the structure and familiarity of the school setting can be upsetting and cause even more anxiety. This is especially so if the child will attend a daycare or summer camp setting while mom and dad work.  For others, like my son, he was relieved that he could stay home and not have to face his fear of school and talking on a daily basis.  In either case, summer is an opportune time to work on pragmatic communication skills, to assist the child with stress-relief techniques, and to work on social and school phobia issues.

While I am no expert in Selective Mutism, I do have a seven year old son that was diagnosed with S.M. at the age of three.  I have researched this topic extensively and partnered with my child's psychologist, therapist, counselor, and teachers over the last 4.5 years. Although children with S.M. can be described as being on a spectrum, I have a few general tips to share that you may find helpful as we enter the summer vacation season here in the U.S.

10 Tips for Making the Most of Summer

1. After school has let out for the summer, allow your child some time to "decompress" from the long school year. This may include lots of free play, unstructured time where the child chooses activities that are of interest (playing with dolls, Legos, taking a bike ride, watching T.V., reading, crafts, drawing, for example). Many parents worry that their child must keep a busy schedule.  For the child with S.M. who is bombarded with anxiety issues, they really need a week or so of "down time".

2. If you have not already, introduce the child to stress relief and relaxation techniques.  See here for  a post I wrote for The Educator's Room about this very topic. Also, I wrote this post with tips for teachers that parents may find helpful as well.

3.  Depending on the progress your child is making, you may want to consider therapy by a professional that has training and experience with S.M.  This may be a speech therapist (although from my experience many are not even aware of this disorder), a counselor, therapist, or psychologist.  Our pediatrician referred us to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD, where my son received treatment for a year.  When my son began preschool, we were blessed to have a school counselor who was trained and experienced with treating S.M.

4. Make use of everyday talking opportunities (pragmatic/practical speech) when you are running errands or visiting your friends.  For my son, it is easier for him to talk to strangers that he meets, say at the grocery store, than to talk to anyone that is associated with a school-like environment.  Why?  Because for him school is what the professionals call "contaminated" for him.  Anyone or any place that he associates with school reminds him of uncomfortable and anxious feelings plus the fear that he has felt at school since he began preschool at the age of three.  However, he has come a long,long way.  It used to be that he would not talk to the cashier, waitress, or the person in line behind us at the grocery store.  Because of repeated exposures and his comfort level, he now does so consistently.

5.  No matter how tempting it may be, I recommend and so do the professionals and the researchers that to force or bribe your child to talk is counterproductive.  Because of their intense fear and their inability to talk in certain situations, to coax, or force the child to talk only increases the anxiety.  I have written about this before, but treatment programs recommend using specific, targeted desensitization and stimulus fading.  From my experience, the less I pressured my son to talk, the more he was likely to make progress. For example, if we are going someplace that is new to him, I ask if he feels nervous.  If he does, I reassure him that he does not have to talk.  When we go to church (a school-like environment for him because Sunday School resembles the classroom in his eyes), I reassure him that he does not have to talk. I begin with having him chat with me in the car as we enter the parking lot. Then, I  work on having him whisper to me as we get out of the car. "Baby steps" is what works best.

For those of you that are parents, teachers, friends, or family members of a child with S.M., I leave you with a link to a fascinating video created by The Child Mind Institute.  This video consists of a panel of children who have overcome their S.M. and the doctors and therapists that worked with the children. Click the picture below to watch the video.  It is well worth your time and is an informative glimpse into the life of children who are struggling to be heard.

In my next post, I will present the last five tips that have worked for my son. You can read all my posts here on my blog about Selective Mutism by clicking 


And because I love the collaborative nature of blogs, please feel free to share your tips and experiences!

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