Selective Mutism . . . Umm

Yesterday I stumbled across an online article which talked about how we as Americans have become a nation of whiners.  It said, in part:

Boomers complain more than our parents did and we’ve raised children who complain more than we do. It’s like we started the wave, like in a stadium. The boomers stood up and started the complaint wave.”

Whether boomers started the wave or not, it’s definitely here, says Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“It does seem that there’s a diminished motivation around sucking it up,” he says . . .

We also have a slew of exciting new things to complain about, says Martha Crowther, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.

“We’ve had a proliferation of talk shows for the last 20 years where they talk about issues that were just not discussed before,” she says. “There’s a proliferation of medications and commercials for various conditions. We’re putting names on things we didn’t know the name for before. We think, ‘Well, maybe I have a problem with that.’”

So I read that, and I thought, “Hey!  I still haven’t written that blog post on selective mustism!”

Before I really get into it, here is the link to the above quoted article.  It was on MSN, so who knows how long it will be available.

Obviously you should take what I’m about to say for whatever you think it is worth, and you shouldn’t take it personally.  I’m sure anybody who actually cares about this topic will feel that what I have to say is worth little to nothing since I am not a child psychologist/therapist/social worker/pediatrician (though it would be fun to play one on t.v.)/occupational or behavioral therapist, or anything else that would remotely qualify me in the eyes of a society that is obsessed with professional training and certifications and could care less about good, old-fashioned common sense.

Moving on . . .

I had never heard of selective mutism until a couple of months ago when my sister called to tell me they were doing a program about it on some cable channel or another.  She thought I might want to watch it since my youngest son has a speech delay which I have long felt was mostly of his own choosing (I believe that more now than ever, by the way).  Of course, I did want to watch this program on selective mustism since: a.  I thought it might give me insight into whatever has been going on with my son; and b. I’d never heard of selective mutism before.  Unfortunately, now that we no longer live way out in the boonies where we felt compelled to have satellite t.v. in order to get any reception of any kind, we have only very limited cable and I was not able to watch the program on selective mutism.

I do, however, have internet!  Duh, right?  So I did what any self-respecting member of American society does these days when they’re having a wonder about something (like the way I turned wonder into a noun there?  I do.) and I consulted Google.

So my sum total of “knowledge” about selective mustism is gleaned from my approximately 45 minutes of online research and my own personal experience as . . . oh my gosh . . . I can’t believe I am going to admit this . . . maybe I should go to therapy first to get stronger . . . a selective mute.  There!  I said it.

Right, I said it before, the first time I said I’d blog about this topic.  Whatever.

See, I grew up thinking I was shy.  Who knew it was worse than that?????

According to my not-so-extensive research, selective mutism is a “condition” wherein a person who can speak quite comfortably, even prolifically, in some situations completely clams up and says nothing in other situations.  I believe they put it on the spectrum of social anxiety disorders.  If not, they should.  I’ll give them that.

Here is what I won’t give them:  according to my research, those suffering (oh!) from selective mutism don’t talk not because they don’t want to (true), but because they physically can’t in situations that are stressful to them (here is where I wave the b.s. flag).

I supposed maybe I should tell you a bit about myself as a child.  I could talk.  Oh, yes, I could talk a blue streak and hold my own in conversations with adults by the time I was 18 months old (at least, that is what my mother has always told me – I have only one or two memories of being that young, so I have to go by what she says) (don’t throw the b.s. flag, it’s true, I do have a smattering of ridiculously early memories).

Anyway, I could talk, no problem.  At home.  But at school?  I can’t tell you how many times my mother came home from parent/teacher conferences saying, “Your teacher says you never say a word.”  Because, of course, I didn’t.  I was pretty much scared to death to speak in class (I did, incidentally, speak on the playground a little bit, but I don’t think I really started interacting a lot there, even, until about the third grade – the swings were my saving grace because I didn’t have to talk to anyone and I didn’t look like a dork just standing there doing nothing as long as I was on a swing).

Interestingly enough, I didn’t really have this issue in kindergarten.  But we moved at the end of my kindergarten year, our house caught on fire right before we were supposed to move in to it, and then my first grade teacher, Mrs. Belcher (oh yes, probably the only real name I will ever use on this blog besides my own) was the freaking scariest woman alive.  I’m not even hyperbolizing.  So I think all of this led to my anxiety.  Especially Mrs. Belcher.  I did not want to cross her.

Anyway, that was my school “selective mustism”.  Additionally, I would clam up at large family gatherings.  It’s not that my relatives were scary (though there is a genetic predisposition to loud among some of the females on my father’s side), it’s just that . . . I don’t know.  I was fine if it was just my grandparents around.  I was fine if there were just a couple of cousins.  But get everybody together?  And talking became a gosh-awful exercise in emotional pain and embarrassment.

But physically impossible?  Back to that b.s. flag . . . I was never physically unable to speak.  Never.  I could speak.  It’s just that, in situations where I was feeling particularly shy (such an old-fashioned notion, apparently) I couldn’t think of what to say.  And, if one can’t think of what to say, and one is wise, one generally says nothing because one doesn’t want to just spew out drivel and look like a fool.  That fear of looking like a fool, of course, only heightened my anxiety and made it more difficult for me to think of anything to say, even in response to a direct question.  Yes, my mouth and vocal cords and all that worked just fine, I just wouldn’t let them do their job because I didn’t want to say something wrong.  Or stupid.

Interestingly enough, if one were to ask me a direct question about my then-baby sister, I could answer it just fine.  Her, I could talk about.  Me?  Not so much.  Also interesting to note:  as an adult, I have found myself in uncomfortable social situation similarly “hiding behind” my own babies and children.

But enough about me and my shyness selective mutism.

In my brief research on this topic, one of the things the websites were careful to point out is that selectively mute children are not being disrespectful or defiant, and parents and teachers need to understand this and not be harsh on the children.  Seriously?  You have to tell parents and teachers this?  Sorry, but if you are working with a kid who is shy and you can’t tell that he or she is shy without some website coaching you?  You have no business working with children or being a parent.

Another thing I read when I Googled selective mutism was the tale of a child (as told by said child’s sister) who couldn’t speak in school.  I think maybe it was more of a day care type setting, but I don’t remember exactly.  At any rate, trying to help the child become more comfortable in that environment, the parents and school folks decided that one or the other of the child’s older siblings would accompany said child to school, thereby, hopefully, giving her additional confidence and security.  The older sister went on to say that rather than the young girl coming out of her shell and speaking in school, “My brilliant sister” just figured out she could whisper the answer to me and I could do the talking for her.

Brilliant?  Then I was Albert-freaking-Einstein! 

As I read that account, as I read that the parents had decided to send an older sibling to school with the little girl, I knew how that was going to end.  I knew the little girl wasn’t going to talk in school any more than she had.  I knew she was going to just whisper to her older sister and have the older sister do the talking for her.  It seemed so commonsensical to me that I couldn’t believe the parents would actually think their plan would get the little girl to talk in class.  But I suppose that is because I have been that little girl, and she did exactly what I would have done.

What she did, using her siblings as her messenger, was not genius.  It was a coping mechanism.  It tends to be, among us humans, that coping is easier than growing.  They provided her the tools, her siblings, to better cope.  The growth needed to combat this level of shyness happens slowly, over time, with the reinforcement of positive, successful life experiences and positive interactions with others.

Apparently those with training and degrees and certifications also think this growth can be achieved through therapy.  Can I now throw a b.s. blanket?  Because I just don’t think a flag is big enough to cover this one.  I know, I know . . . I’m being awfully glib about this whole subject.

Here’s the thing:  kids with selective mutism, or shyness, or whatever label you want to slap on it, already have a level of social anxiety.  Do you really think taking them to therapy is not going to worsen their anxiety?  When you take a kid to therapy, a kid you know can talk but just doesn’t in situations that are uncomfortable to him or her, you are telling that kid:  Something is wrong with you and I’m going to make sure you get fixed.

Yeah, there’s a positive, successful life experience for you.

I suppose I shouldn’t speak for all shy children.  Everyone is different.  I don’t know . . . maybe being taken to therapy will make some children feel loved?  I know it would have mortified me.  It would have solidified in my mind that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t normal, and then?  Well, if I’m broken or abnormal, I’m certainly not going to speak because I would be sure to make a fool of myself, wouldn’t I?

Shy kids aren’t broken.  They are shy.  We are all born with our innate personalities, and within each of us are personality traits that can cause us to struggle as we grow.  That doesn’t mean we are all broken, it just means we all have things to overcome.  It is in the overcoming that we become stronger.

My shyness has been a struggle throughout my life.  It has lessened greatly over the years as I have had many wonderful, positive life experiences and many positive interactions with people outside of my own family.  I still struggle in social situations where I don’t know most of the people (so. glad. McH’s employer isn’t having a Christmas party!), but I’m better at faking it.  I know I’m not the easy, breezy, life of the party by any stretch, but I get by.  Interestingly enough, blogging has also helped.  Behind the anonymity of my laptop and internet connection, I feel more free to just say whatever I feel like saying, audience be dammed (as evidenced by this post, I’m sure), and in so doing I have discovered even more that when I say what’s on my mind?  The world does not, in fact, come to an end.

So to those who may have a child who has been diagnosed with selective mutism (ugh! diagnosed?  seriously?)  I would say this:  just love him or her.  Help your child find his or her interests and opportunities for positive, supportive interactions.  Don’t try to force anything.  Don’t tell them there is something wrong with them!  Just love them.  Help them think of ice breakers before going into social situations.  Help them think of responses to questions people might ask them so that they are prepared with answers that are both appropriate and comfortable.  When necessary, help them to come up with coping mechanisms.  Above all, be patient.  If someone must go to therapy, might I suggest that it be the parent?  As the parent, you can learn whatever it is the therapist would be doing with your child, and then you can do it at home.  Or have a trusted aunt, uncle, neighbor, etc. with whom the child feels comfortable do the “therapy” with him or her. 

Don’t make your child feel broken.  Don’t slap the selective mute label on your child.  Doesn’t that sound intimidating?

“Oh, forgive Jonny for not answering your question.  He’s a selective mute.”  Geeze.  You might as well just rename him Boo Radley and lock him up.

I was going to talk some more about Quinn and his choice not to talk at an unfortunately very important time developmentally to be talking, but I think this post is long enough already, and his situation is (almost) completely different.  So maybe in a few days.  I will give you a quick update though:  he is now talking in sentences that are longer than three words.  Still not caught up to where he should be, but making great progress every day.  Without a therapist.  Obviously (hopefully) I’m not saying speech therapy is never the right thing to do.  I’m just saying I’m glad I’ve listened to my gut (aka common sense) on this one.  I’m also not saying he’ll never need to go back to speech therapy, I’m just saying right now I think Tank Boy will be going before Quinn does (Tank Boy has an s issue).

Now, Tewt the Newt needs to shower.

OMGsh!  See?  That is totally the kind of thing that kept me clammed up as a kid.  Who tells the world they need to go shower?  That is gross and a little too personal!  Whatever.  Except when I was younger?  I couldn’t just say “Whatever.”  No, I obsessed about every word that came out of my mouth and how it might have been misconstrued or accidentally offensive, or maybe worse!  Maybe just plain stupid!

3 thoughts on “Selective Mutism . . . Umm

  1. Christina

    I agree. With pretty much everything you said. We are a therapy-obsessed culture these days, and I don’t think it’s done us a heck of a lot of good. And I speak as one who has dragged my child to therapy. Multiple times. (And? In the end I really doubt much of it did any good for the child. I got some benefit out of it, in learning better parenting techniques, but that just goes to your point that often it’s the parent who needs to go.) I think the thing that bothered me most about the therapists, most especially our last one, was this attitude that somehow she knew my kid better than I did. And I started to believe it, and doubt my own parenting instincts. That was a bad time for all of us. When I trusted in myself and kicked the therapist to the curb, everything started getting better. So I agree, sometimes “professionals” are good and helpful and we should be open to that option… but good common sense parenting is often all the kid really needs.


  2. LOL…I just wrote an article on anxiety disorders in children, and selective mutism is definitely considered one. Here’s the thing though. It is often combined with other speech disorders. For example, if a child has apraxia, he might choose not to speak because no one can understand him anyway, and he’s embarrassed by how he sounds. So sometimes you have to find out if there is an underlying cause of the shyness (and yes that is what it should be called LOL) that can be treated.


  3. Wow, I was shy as a child too (I actually still consider myself shy, but have been forced “out of my shell” by some of my callings in church). You describe it so well in this post! I had never heard of selective mutism until you brought it up. I think that what AprilMay says above is a great add-on to your post.


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