Children with Selective Mutism (SM) demonstrate high anxiety in social contexts. They have extreme difficulty engaging in verbal communication when anxious. You knew that. Now I ask; how can you and your perception influence someone with Selective Mutism or high anxiety?
I have seen a number of people offended when a child with SM does not speak to them. Within our culture, we often put manners in the forefront and with that we will frequently sacrifice our own comfort to be polite. When you are having a bad day and someone asks, “how are you?” You may respond with a smile and say, “fine.” Or maybe you have a coworker who is extremely overbearing and anytime he/she is present, you put on a smile rather than display your discomfort. Consequently, we look for the same courtesy in return. So we expect that when someone is anxious they put aside their discomfort, conform to culture, and say “hi”. Allow me to explain how this expectation perpetuates a child’s anxiety and SM.
Now let’s look at this from the most realistic view. A child has been ignoring my verbal queues for weeks, and I am beginning to feel disrespected. I feel as if this child is trying to control me. Maybe I feel like I am not good at what I do; therefore, I begin to resent this child. Within a relationship, where we apply expectations and those expectations are not met, naturally discomfort forms.
Let’s reframe this situation and apply a new meaning to SM. A child has been ignoring my verbal queues for weeks, and I am beginning to feel disrespected. This child continues to be quite anxious and I may want to explore a new way to engage this child (conceptualize a fly trying to get through a glass window – no matter how many times that fly tries, it will not magically fly through glass). I feel as if this child is trying to control me. I wonder what the meaning of this behavior is? (clue … ANXIETY, FEAR, FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE). Maybe I feel like I am not good at what I do; therefore, I begin to resent this child. I cannot blame a child for my emotional response; therefore, I need to understand more about SM (high anxiety). A child with SM wants to be polite. A child with SM wants to speak. Every time a child speaks and uses their voice, self confidence ensues. So how can you help this child feel more comfortable? By allowing yourself to apply a different meaning to SM the child will have a better chance of being empowered by you.
Children are extremely intuitive and anxious children internalize any kind of questionable interpersonal exchange. Therefore, it is important to have a strong understanding of anxiety and how your eye contact, body language, tone of voice, and how you speak to a child with anxiety may influence them.
When a child with SM begins to make you question yourself, question yourself! Do not be afraid to acknowledge that you are offended or uncomfortable. Allow this feeling to act as an alarm that you need to reframe your thoughts and beliefs about this behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. Be flexible: I have learned throughout my career that the most flexible person in a relationship is the most influential. And please remember, children with SM want to speak!