Registered Charity No. 1022673
Joining a Family where there is a Child with Selective Mutism
This information sheet seeks to explain the nature of selective mutism (SM) and provides advice on how to build a happy and lasting relationship with children who suffer from this condition. The advice may initially seem to be counterintuitive but this in no way reflects upon you as a partner or parent. SM has been around for many years but only now is it becoming more widely understood.
Please do not under-estimate the value of your co-operation in following these guidelines. Your support will be a positive investment in both the future stability and cohesion of the family, and the prospective outcomes for the SM child.
Dos and Don’ts
- If your partner has explained that his/her child suffers from SM or if you suspect this to be the case, it is useful to do some further reading on the subject (see useful references below). Here you will learn that what may seem like stubbornness or deliberate behaviour is in fact an automatic anxiety reaction which the child cannot control. They are experiencing something very similar to stage-fright whenever they are expected to talk to or in front of certain people.
- You may initially get the impression that the child dislikes you – a selectively mute child that doesn’t speak, avoids eye-contact and never smiles, can easily give that impression! This is likely to leave you feeling hurt or even angry. It is important that you recognise that the child is simply reacting to the feelings of anxiety which they always get when meeting someone new. If they feel under pressure to speak they may even run away or hide in order to let their panic subside.
- Understand that it may take time to digest all this information which may go right against your natural instincts. But however hurt, helpless, angry or frustrated you may feel, it is vital that you do not show your true feelings. Any disapproval, disappointment or unreasonable demands will make it even harder for the child to relax and behave normally in your company.
- Be assured that the child’s inability to speak and interact freely with you is only a temporary setback, it will resolve with time, provided you are patient and tolerant.
Likewise your partner should explain to the child that talking and relaxing will get easier in time. You should reiterate this, and reassure the child that you understand their difficulties.
- Remove all pressure on the child to speak until he or she is comfortable enough for this to happen naturally. You and your partner should continue to speak to the child and include him/her in all family activities as usual but avoid direct questions and make it clear that you are more interested in enjoying their company than hearing them speak. It is good to include siblings (when present) as this provides familiarity and may draw the child’s focus away from you, this will help the child get used to your presence.
- Always respond positively and warmly to any attempts by the child to communicate with you, either verbally or otherwise! Pointing nodding, drawing, listening to a story and sharing activities and are all valuable forms of communication, each a step nearer to talking.
- Whenever possible, please allow your partner and his/her child to take short breaks away from you and the company of others; this will allow the child to talk freely and convey urgent needs, without having to resort to whispering in your partner’s ear. This is particularly important when relatively long periods of time are spent in company.
- To begin with, please allow your partner to have some individual time with his/her child and siblings (if any). This will reduce the child’s anxiety on a regular basis and allow them to use a relaxed loud voice again. You will find that you can join in these sessions after a while if you use a step by step approach at the same pace as the child adapts to your presence – gradually get closer as the child continues to use a normal voice, and pull away as they get quieter.
- Please let your partner remain in charge of their child. The child will respond more quickly if your partner retains full responsibility for their day-to-day discipline and management. Handing over control to you is likely to significantly increase the child’s anxiety. This is true, no matter how well-meaning or competent your parenting skills are! SM is highly contextual in nature; an adult taking on the role of an authority figure tends to be more intimidating than one acting as a trusted friend, so it is important for you to concentrate on building a trusting friendship, rather than feeling pressured into quickly assuming a parental role.
- You or your partner should inform the child’s nursery or school about the change in family circumstances as this may influence his/her behaviour outside the home. SM children find all change difficult, even the little things in life, but with time to prepare, understand and adjust, they can happily adapt to a new situation.
- Do not feel your partner is being over-protective. It can seem as though your partner has chosen to side with the child; this is not the case. It is your support and co-operation that will ultimately help to forge a positive relationship with the child, and will draw the family closer together, in the long term.
- Don’t ask leading questions such as; “Why are you behaving this way?” “Why don’t you like me?”
Young SM children are unlikely to be aware of the concept of anxiety, so won’t to be able to explain their behaviour in terms of feeling anxious. In fact they are unlikely to be aware that their behaviour is odd at all! Behaviours such as avoiding eye contact, failure to speak and frozen facial expressions are instinctive reactions to anxiety provoking stimuli. There is no conscious thought involved, on the part of the child; in other words these behaviours are not premeditated! If you suggest that he/she dislikes you, it is likely to lead to confusion on the part of the child, he/she may simply agree with you because you’re an adult!
- Don’t be pressured (or upset) by relatives or friends who advocate a zero tolerance, quick fix approach. SM is not widely recognised or understood by the public at large. so for those unfamiliar with the condition, it is tempting to think that it can be easily dealt with by confronting or correcting the child. As your new partner has probably discovered the hard way, this will only make matters worse! Any parent with experience of an SM child will tell you that patience and perseverance are required, over a prolonged period of time.
- The free downloads section on: http://www.selectivemutism.org.uk/ especially the leaflets What is Selective Mutism? and Planning and Managing a Small Steps Programme.
- “The Selective Mutism Resource Manual” by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens especially Chapter 2, Frequently Asked Questions, Chapter 6, Creating the Right Environment and Chapter 9, the Sliding-in Technique.
- ‘Silent Children – approaches to Selective Mutism’ – a DVD produced by SMIRA (Selective Mutism Information & Research Association) and obtainable from the online shop at www.selectivemutism.org.uk. Email enquiries may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Maggie Johnson and Vivienne Ponsonby for SMIRA 2010