If you have followed my blog for awhile, you know that a considerable part of my content deals with parenting issues, including my journey as a mother to a young child with Selective Mutism. It has been five years since my youngest son was first diagnosed at the age of three. Since that time, my son has made progress, had regressions, and has attended private school, has been home schooled, and is now a second grader in our local public school.
As I reflect on my son's growth and progress, I desire to bring hope to those who love a child with Selective Mutism. It's a long, lonely, and painful journey, but there is much light at the end of the tunnel!
10 Life Lessons My Son Taught Me
1. What you think you see may not be accurate- You may see this and your heart breaks...
But, my child has taught me that the "S.M. stare" is his countenance whether he is feeling happy or extremely anxious on the inside. It's just part of his coping mechanism and does let me and his teacher know that he isn't quite in his comfort zone. In addition, an observer may conclude that the child is sad and feels left out, but the child may prefer to be alone during non-structured times such as free play and recess. For my son, it offers a respite from the classroom where he is expected to take part in small and whole group activities. Like many children with S.M., he definitely has an introverted side to him. Still, recess is hard for him and he does his own thing, BUT, he does not want to be approached or asked to join in play. How do I know all this? Because he told me!
2. I will tell you how I feel when I am able to- At the onset of S.M., my son was barely a preschooler. Along with S.M., he had delayed speech and articulation difficulties. He was also the youngest and had two older brothers to cater and speak for him. So, verbal communication was not his strong point. And besides, toddlers and preschoolers have little means to express how frustrated they are feeling besides the infamous tantrums. Along came kindergarten and my son did not even want me to mention one.little.thing about his talking or lack there of. Nada. Nothing. He appeared to become angry and embarrassed. At this time, he was in treatment with a psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and in speech therapy, plus in all day kindergarten.
Looking back now, he was most likely on stimulus overload and under immense pressure. It took awhile, but this mom finally learned that #1, I needed to back off, trust that my son would talk about his feelings when he wanted to and was developmentally mature enough to do so. Kids with S.M. stress out when expected to talk whether it is by a parent or a teacher. And #2, I need to be patient. There is no quick fix to S.M. and sometimes a person is under so much anxiety that they don't really know how they feel other than yucky and uncomfortable. What I did instead was be available to him when he did want to share and to love on him no matter what.
Now, at the age of 8, he freely talks a lot about his feelings, his frustrations from the day, his joys, and his discomfort with speaking (whispering) at school. . Much of what I am writing about today is what he shared with me.
3. And speaking of patience, you will need LOTS of it- I really thought that having three boys, one with Aspergers, being a teacher (I spent 14 years in middle school!), and life in general had prepared me to be patient. Not so! My youngest has taught me that I had more patience inside of me than I ever thought I had! Most of the effective treatment for S.M. centers around desensitization which requires very small, baby, minute steps. At times, I was overwhelmed and yes, I admit, impatient, that it took my son years to be able to whisper to his teacher. And then, BOOM!, he regressed and wouldn't even whisper. But. my sweet boy taught me that what he needs most is a reliably patient mom that rolls with it.
4. Baby Steps is What It is All About- Research shows that desensitization is the most effective way to treat S.M. This is a fancy word for taking baby steps, breaking down the steps to attain a goal. For example, when my son was three, the psychologist and I set a goal that my son would talk in the hallway at school (to reach a bigger goal of talking in the classroom). Part of our "homework" was after school (I was fortunate enough to also teach at the school) I would get my son from his classroom and we would walk down the hallway to my classroom. At first, we just walked and I would casually say that I hoped he had a good day. I did not ASK if he had a good day because I didn't want to pressure him to talk- at first. The goal was to reduce the anxiety, not to set an expectation that he was to talk.
But then, we had to go w-a-y back even further because my son was not talking in the parking lot at school. He would stop talking in the car as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. We baby stepped it back to having his goal being to talk in the van while in the parking lot and then later to talk aloud in the parking lot as we walked toward the school doors. Baby steps take time- months and even years and that is o.k.
5. The Anxiety Doesn't Stop at the End of the School Day- Just because the school day has ended ( school is a major cause of anxiety for children with S.M.) and we are at home doesn't mean my child is now free from tension and anxious feelings. What my son taught me is that when he comes home, he needs time to decompress and release all the emotions he has stifled all day. Sometimes this may present as a temper tantrum, meltdown, chattering nonstop to me in a pleasant manner, fighting with his brother, or going outside to run and play. He hasn't talked all day and when he was very young would barely smile. Still to this day, he will not laugh aloud or cry out loud when hurt while at school. Therefore, a hug from mom at the end of the day, goes a long way!
I'll be back next week to share my #6- #10 lessons learned. In the meantime, do you have something you can share about your experiences or questions you have about Selective Mutism? Please do so in comments!