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(c) 2014 Deborah A. Beasley

If you are the parent of an anxious child, or a child so overwhelmed with fears it renders them unable to speak in certain situations, you are not alone. The root of selective mutism is often trauma and fear. Soothe the fear, create safety for the child, and they will learn to speak freely. Research shows most children first diagnosed with social anxiety or selective mutism are between the ages of four and eight. As the search for answers ensues and therapies begin, parents and teachers wonder what they can do to lessen their child’s anxiety. Below are a few things to remember when raising and working with a child with social anxiety.

Soften the Fear and Reduce Key Stressors

  • Decrease or temporarily eliminate overwhelming and stressful situations
  • Increase emotional comfort through a consistent, stable and supportive environment
  • Reassure children by your soothing presence and understanding
  • Increase sensory comfort and calm the internal child (favorite toy or blanket, soft clothing – no tags or seams, decrease harsh lighting and sudden or loud noises. In very stressful situations, children may be comforted by a certain food item, usually a sweet)
  • Look for subtle and overt cues of distress (i.e. a frozen or emotionless face, retreating to a corner, hiding under furniture, refusing to leave the car, averting eyes or no eye contact, frozen stature, incessant chatter, obsessive movements)
  • Children need immediate attention, intervention, and security when they display feelings of overwhelm, such as yelling, inflexible or obstinate behaviors, screaming, intense crying, fear or trembling, throwing things, hitting, or are physically struggling.
  • Ideal interventions begin with early interruption before children become overwhelmed; this permits caregivers an easier path to calming, redirecting, reassuring, and regulating the child.

The Never-Evers

  • Never place demands or conditions on children to speak
  • Never judge or belittle children for not being able to speak
  • Never use punishment, isolation, or scolding to threaten or frighten children into responding
  • Never allow personal frustration or disappointment to influence how you treat children
  • Using the above tactics on children with anxiety disorders will worsen symptoms, delay healing, and negatively reinforce unintended patterns of behavior.

Just as Pickles’ mom taught her to sign to help her communicate more effectively until she could speak, parents will discover the best ways to soothe the heart and soul of anxiety in their children. Rather than molding the child to meet life, we sculpt life to meet the child. We trust the child will ultimately be able to grow into the life that surrounds them.

For more information on childhood anxiety disorders contact:

ADAA- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

The Selective Mutism Foundation

(Excerpt from the NEW book: Sweet Pickles The Girl Who Would Not Speak, available on amazon.com)