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.

Reply
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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
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So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

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There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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