When my daughter was three years old, her pre-school teacher told me that she had never heard her speak.
Immediately my mind spiralled out of control: I was terrified that she might follow in my footsteps, and selective mutism was not something I wanted my daughter to experience.
Simon (my partner) reassured me that our daughter is not me. She is her own person with her own life, and her own experiences to have.
‘Don’t place your burdens on her shoulders’ was essentially his message, as he reminded me of all the differences between us.
I began to look at my expectations of her, and realised that in my longing that she would be different to me, I was putting her under pressure to be more vocal than she was ready to be. The pressure wasn’t big, but it was there, and if I know anything about pressure, I know that in this kind of scenario it usually makes things more difficult.
In that moment, my approach to my daughter changed. I stopped reacting to her changes of behaviour as we approached pre-school, and instead I watched and responded to all of her different forms of communication. Speaking and not-speaking were fine, and were treated just the same … I didn’t want her to feel that one type of communication was better or more acceptable than another. I wanted her to grow in confidence to share her voice as and when she was ready.
I didn’t know what else I could do for my daughter, other than to show her that I understood and heard everything she said, even when she spoke without words.
At this point I didn’t talk much with her teacher about it, and selective mutism was never mentioned, but I kept an eye on her progress to quell my own fears and evaluated her from my own experience.
When other people commented on her ‘shyness’ I never agreed with them – I told her she was okay to hide if she needed to, and I realised that that was where she needed to be right now. I absorbed comments and the reactions caused by unmet expectations when she found herself unable to reply to questions, and as time went by, I found myself making peace with my past.
Through my daughter I was able to experience my own childhood from a different perspective. The unconditional love and acceptance that I gave my daughter, I gave to the small child inside of me too. Every acknowledgement of every effort of communication; every time I advocated for my daughter and ignored the comments and opinions of others – it all helped me to gain in strength and self-belief as I saw myself in a completely different way.
As my inner-child healed my daughter grew more vocal, and five years on the fears from that short time in our lives are now well behind us.
I feel hugely lucky that my daughter’s potential for selective mutism was short-lived (and probably more a way for me to better understand myself!) Thinking about our experience today helps me to understand how difficult it must have been for my own parents, and for all the other Mums and Dads out there who are helping, and have helped, other children with the challenge of selective mutism.
Some parents may have no idea what is going on for their child; some may know of selective mutism, but misunderstand what it actually is; others may have read every piece of literature they can find and are literally at their wits end trying to find a way through.
Some children respond to therapy, some to medication, and some find what they need in a teacher who is able to meet their needs. It is important to remember that every situation is unique, but in my opinion, the more that everybody involved can understand what is going on, the easier it will be.
Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder. A child presenting with symptoms is not acting out of choice – their inability to speak is completely involuntary, and anything that draws attention to that will likely increase their feelings of pressure and unease.
If a child you know appears to be suffering from selective mutism, you can help them hugely by understanding what is going on for them and acting accordingly. I hope this article has been helpful – please browse my blog if you would like to read more about my experiences with selective mutism – and do comment on what has helped for you!