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How to identify, manage a child with Selective Mutism

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Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school or home. According to Child psychologist, ThankGod Ocheho, a child with Selective Mutism may talk normally at home, for instance, or when alone with her parents, but cannot speak at all or speak above a whisper in other social settings, including at school, in public, or at extended family gatherings.

The founder TGM consulting, (a child development resource outfit) said that children with this disorder are able to speak and communicate only in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.

Children and adolescents with Selective Mutism have an actual fear of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to speak and communicate. Research shows that more than 90 per cent of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety.

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“Not all children manifest their anxiety in the same way. Some may be completely mute and unable to speak or communicate to anyone in a social setting, others may be able to speak to a select few or perhaps whisper. Some children may stand motionless with fear as they are confronted with specific social settings. They may freeze, be expressionless, unemotional and may be socially isolated.”

On the symptoms of Selective Mutism, Ocheho said that failure to speak in specific social situation, shyness, difficulty maintaining eye contact, blank expression, reluctance to smile, stiff and awkward movements, difficulty expressing feelings, even to family members and tendency to worry more than most people of the same age are expected to occur.

He stressed that genetically, a parent who have anxiety for social setting can predispose the children to this, while cultural backgrounds that doesn’t value children’s ability to express themselves in social setting especially before authority they can make children develop this disorder.

When there is a negative reinforcement, which is as a result of a child who keeps getting a discouraged, it prevents them from boldly talking publicly. Family stress and trouble is also a factor – children who express stress, trouble or traumatic experience can develop Selective Mutism too.

On how these children can be helped, the child psychologist said that positive reinforcement should be a regular to build the confidence of that child and help him or her find his voice in the settings where he or she has trouble speaking.

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“Confronting mutism in a non-threatening way is important. These children are scared and the focus should be to help them identify their level of being scared’ in a particular situation. Helping them to realise that you understand and are there to help them relieve tremendous pressure.

“Lead the child to modify their behaviour by redirecting their fears and worries into positive thoughts. Parents should emphasise their child’s positive attributes. For example, if your child is artistic, then by all means show off the artwork. Have a special wall to display your child’s masterpieces; perhaps you can even have a special exhibition. This will help to boost the child’s esteem.

He added that parents should encourage as much socialisation as possible without pushing their child. “Arrange frequent play dates with classmates or even small group interactions with individuals the child knows well. Parents need to educate teachers and school personnel about Selective Mutism. You must be an advocate for your child. The school needs to understand that children with Selective Mutism are not being defiant or stubborn by not speaking, that they truly cannot speak.

“Family members must be involved in the entire treatment process. Very often, changes in parenting styles and expectations are necessary to accommodate the needs of the child. Selective Mutism is real and we must help children with this disorder to get help from a professional.”

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