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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
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Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

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