Dear SMA Community,

Family gatherings are often a time for celebration and connection. For a child with anxiety, and Selective Mutism (SM), reunions and gatherings can be a little overwhelming. Family gatherings may create a sense of pressure on kids to socialize, and children with SM have great difficulty speaking outside of their comfort zone. Additionally, since during this time of COVID, many families have spent months apart, children have had much more “practice” not talking. Finally, extended family, who are very excited to see the child, may have a lot of expectations regarding how the visit will go. Here are some tips to help–

Do some prep work

Think & plan ahead- If you are going somewhere, pack a bag of activities that your child enjoys and plan some prizes to reinforce bravery. Let family and friends know where your child is in terms of her bravery so they know what things to do and say. Greetings like, “It’s so good to see you,” rather than bombarding the child with questions, are helpful.

Set realistic expectations

You might have an idea of what you think “should” happen during the visit, but it is essential to be realistic and meet your child where he is at. Expecting him to speak with cousins he only sees once a year may simply be too hard for now. Speaking to you in front of cousins may be a more appropriate goal. Realistic expectations reduce everyone’s stress, but they will also empower your child and help him feel proud and accomplished.

Start slow and praise the effort

Kids with selective mutism need time to warm up. Help your child feel comfortable in whatever environment you are in, doing something fun and engaging. Refrain from asking questions in the beginning, and then slowly prompt her with some forced choice questions.
Warm up time helps set the stage for the next step, which may be to bring one person into the room; consider starting with someone your child has already talked to, talks to often, or is very excited to play with. Praise your child for answering your questions in front of the family member, before they start asking questions.

Know when things are hard

Remember that large family gatherings can be stressful for anyone, especially kids with SM. Celebrate the successes and manage expectations about things that are too hard (for now). If your child isn’t yet ready to speak at the dinner table, remind the eager relative, “Thanks for asking these questions. We are still working on answering them in front of a lot of people.” This openness acknowledges that things are hard but gently removes the pressure at the same time.

Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP
SMA Board of Directors