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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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