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.

4 Comments

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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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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During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #adolescence 
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"We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say 'no' sometimes, and if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.❤️" 
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#neurodevelopment #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting

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