Guest Post: When I Grow Up I Want to Talk. My Story of Selective Mutism

When I grow up I want to talk. My story of selective mutism.
By Kathryn Harper

When my son grows up he would like to be a spy, a fireman or a cowboy. My daughter thinks she would like to be a vet.

I had many dreams when I was a child about what I might do or be when I was grown up. Becoming an author featured quite highly – along with artist, and I’m sure I went through stages of thinking I might be a teacher, an air hostess and even a fireman. Despite all of this, more than anything, I dreamed that when I grew up I would be just like everybody else.

 When I grew up, I wanted to be able to talk to people. I wanted to feel understood and I wanted to be able to answer all those questions I couldn’t answer when I was small. I dreamed and dreamed of what I would say when I could, and how I would help people to understand …

Why are you so quiet?

 When I was young I was always being asked questions: “Why don’t you talk? Why are you so quiet?” 

I never understood why people asked me those questions so often. I didn’t talk normally, so pushed with such a question, the chances I might answer were significantly less than zero.

Inside my head, a question like this would have me screaming.

My emotions would bubble up and threaten to take over, as my rigid body stood in shock, with wide eyes staring into nothing in particular, or focussing lazily on a particular section of the floor. The words would echo over and over and over, until it felt like thousands of people were standing around me, each one of them demanding an answer.

At the same time, my world would slow, and I was aware of my heart beating through my whole body. Sometimes it felt like it took over the room, every one else was moving in slow, blurry, jolting movements as my heart’s drumming filled my ears. Tears would prick my eyes, and words would flood into my throat.

 My throat, closed tight, gave nothing away. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t answer those questions. Sometimes my mouth would open and close fruitlessly. The words just wouldn’t follow.

 I wished that they would.

I wished I could talk like everybody else.

What is Selective Mutism?

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was younger I suffered from Selective Mutism, an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer finds it impossible to talk in certain situations (even though they can talk fluently in situations where they feel more comfortable). This condition is much more common than is widely known, and it is believed that somewhere between 1:1000 to as many as 1:100 children may suffer to some degree.

Many people mistakenly believe that people like me are choosing not to speak, but it really isn’t like this at all.

The body becomes swamped with fear and anxiety, and the vocal chords are literally frozen. Speech is not possible until the anxiety is lessened – and so finding situations and spaces in which a selective mute person feels comfortable is a crucial part of helping them to recover. No amount of asking, persuading, questioning or demanding will help.

More than just shy.

 I always assumed I was shy or quiet. That’s what other people seemed to think – and I figured they must be right. However, sometimes I compared myself to other shy or quiet people and somehow something didn’t seem right.

I didn’t feel shy or quiet the way that other people were shy or quiet. I felt like there was more than this going on. I felt different, and even a little wrong.

I imagine many selective mute children might be mistaken as being shy – but hoping a selective mute child might grow out of it like shy children often do is only likely to make things worse. The earlier a child is identified as being selective mute, and given ways to manage their anxiety, the better.

Working with selective mutism.

 I always longed to feel like I was being heard. I understood that communication was about a lot more than the words that I couldn’t say, but it didn’t seem like many people were able to listen in the way I needed them to.

I longed for someone who could sense the overwhelm and anxiety I felt; someone who would take me away from the over-stimulating environments that caused my voice to shut itself down. I longed to feel acknowledged and accepted for the communication that I could manage – and I longed for the pressure to disappear.

I do not know a lot about the sliding in process that is often used to help selectively mute children today, but from what I am able to grasp, this is a way of communicating to children that you can hear them the way I once craved.

Reducing anxiety provoking stimuli and gradually expanding the comfortable space for the child to eventually include other people is something that slowly and respectfully helps the sensitivity of selective mute children to adjust. I have heard of it being used with much success, and it makes sense to me why it works.

How I found my voice.

I found my own ways to cope as a child – and managed to begin talking to meet the expectations of other people. At the time it served its purpose, as I was no longer mute – but the implications were that I would have to spend a good portion of my adult life reconnecting with my real voice and the words that I wanted to say. 

Today, I still sometimes find it difficult to talk. Words still get stuck on their way out, and sometimes I feel like I lose them completely. Sometimes what I want to say comes out as something that doesn’t quite sound like I wanted it to. Sometimes, words just fall out of my mouth, and they don’t appear to make any sense.

Other times I still can’t say anything at all.

I am learning that all of this is okay. Whether I can or can’t talk; whether people like it or they don’t; whether I am understood or judged harshly … what really matters is how I feel inside of myself, and acknowledging how far I have come.

Once upon a time I wanted many things for myself, and today I find myself living my dream. I am an author and illustrator who can talk to people in ways that help them to understand. I am reconnecting with my words, and all the time I am expanding the walls of my comfortable place.

People might still describe me as quiet, and perhaps I am in many ways, but I am no longer asked to explain myself. I do, however, feel compelled to share my explanations anyway. All those unanswered questions from my past have been asked of many other people too. Perhaps someone will find what they are looking for in my answers.


 Kathryn Harper“It feels like a purpose of mine to connect with my past and turn it into stories and lessons that will help both children and adults to Love the life they have.”

Kathryn Harper is author-illustrator of the Katie-Jane book series, written to explore emotional concepts and connect children to their feelings through fun, rhyming verse and beautiful illustrations. She also explores her personal experiences with selective mutism, anxiety and sensitivity on her blog at kathrynharper.net. 

 You can also find Kathryn on Twitter and Facebook.

5 Comments

Rachel

You describe Selective Mutism so well and as a parent of a SM child I have shared this with my friends to bring awareness to such a debilitating disorder that is sadly misunderstood for shyness (if only!). Thank you.

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Jana

Hey, I just wanted to say what you wrote about selective mutism was so beautifully written and I haven’t found a single thing i could relate to so much until I found this article thank you so much wow

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All kids need the 'the right things' to thrive. The right people, the right motivation, the right encouragement. Out in the world, at school, or wherever they find themselves, kids and teens with anxiety don't need any extra support - they just need their share, but in a way that works for them. 

In a world that tends to turn towards the noise, it can be easy for the ones that tend to stand back and observe and think and take it all in, to feel as though they need to be different - but they don't. Kids and teens who are vulnerable to anxiety tend to have a different and wonderful way of looking at the world. They're compassionate, empathic, open-hearted, brave and intelligent. They're exactly the people the world needs. The last thing we want is for them to think they need to be anyone different to who they are.

#parenting #anxietysupport #childanxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #parent #heywarrior #heysigmund
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.'

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we won’t see it.

This safety will only happen through relationship. This isn’t a child thing, or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re all wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. For children it starts with the adult in the room.

We can pour all the resources we want into learning support, or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline.

Anxiety is not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising - insightful, important, beautiful things.

But relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children - all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

The antidote to anxiety is trust, and the greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts.
In uncertain times, one thing that is certain is the profound power of you to help their world feel safe enough. You are everything to them and however scary the world feels, the safety of you will always feel bigger. 

When the world feels fragile, they will look to us for strength. When it feels unpredictable, they will look to us for calm. When they feel small, we can be their big. 

Our children are wired to feel safe when they are connected and close to us. That closeness doesn’t always have to mean physical proximity, but of course that will be their favourite. Our words can build their safe base, “I know this feels scary love, and I know we will be okay.” And our words can become their wings, “I can hear how worried you are, and I know you are brave enough. You were built for this my love. What can you do that would be brave right now?”

We might look for the right things to do or the right things to say to make things better for them, but the truth of it all is the answer has always been you. Your warmth, your validation, your presence, your calm, your courage. You have the greatest power to help them feel big enough. You don’t have to look for it or reach for it - it’s there, in you. Everything you need to help them feel safe enough and brave enough is in you. 

This doesn’t mean never feeling scared ourselves. It’s absolutely okay to feel whatever we feel. What it means is allowing it to be, and adding in what we can. Not getting over it, but adding into it - adding strength, calm, courage. So we feel both - anxious and strong, uncertain and determined, scared and safe ‘enough’. 

When our children see us move through our own anxiety, restlessness, or uncertainty with courage, it opens the way for them to do the same. When our hearts are brave enough and calm enough, our children will catch this, and when they do, their world will feel safe enough and they will feel big enough.
The temptation to lift our kiddos out of the way of anxiety can be spectacular. Here's the rub though - avoidance has a powerful way of teaching them that the only way to feel safe is to avoid. This makes sense, but it can shrink their world. 

We also don't want to go the other way, and meet their anxiety by telling them there's nothing to worry about. They won't believe it anyway. The option is to ride the wave with them. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. 

This is hard - an anxious brain will haul them into the future and try to buddy them up with plenty of 'what-ifs' - the raging fuel for anxiety. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won't buy it straight away, and that's okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are brave, the more they are brave - and we know they are brave.

 #parenting #positiveparenting #parenthood #parentingtips #childdevelopment #anxietyinchildren #neuronurtured #childanxiety #parentingadvice #heywarrior #anxietysupport #anxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #parentingtip #neurodevelopment
To do this, we will often need to ‘go first’ with calm and courage. This will mean calming our own anxiety enough, so we can lead them towards things that are good for them, rather than supporting their avoidance of things that feel too big, but which are important or meaningful. 

The very thing that makes you a wonderful parent, can also get in the way of moving them through anxiety. As their parent, you were built to feel distress at their distress. This distress works to mobilise you to keep them safe. This is how it’s meant to work. The problem is that sometimes, anxiety can show up in our children when it there is no danger, and no need to protect. 

Of course sometimes there is a very real need to keep our children safe, and to support them in the retreat from danger. Sometimes though, the greatest things we can do for them is support their move towards the things that are important a or meaningful, but which feel too big in the moment. One of the things that makes anxiety so tough to deal with is that it can look the same whether it is in response to a threat, or in response to things that will flourish them. 

When anxiety happens in the absence of threat, it can move us to (over)protect them from the things that will be good for them (but which register as threat). I’ve done it so many times myself. We’re human, and the pull to move our children out of the way of the things that are causing their distress will be seismic. The key is knowing when the anxiety is in response to a real threat (and to hold them back from danger) and when it is in response to something important and meaningful (and to gently support them forward). The good news is that you were built to move towards through both - courage and safety. The key to strengthening them is knowing which one when - and we don’t have to get it right every time.♥️

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