How to help a child with selective mutism cope with family gatherings

The festive period, Easter and other family gatherings can be lovely, but can also be very anxiety inducing for children with selective mutism. Why?

1. Visits from extended family and family friends who the child has previously been unable to talk to.

2. Visiting 'non-verbal' environments, extended families homes', that the child has found it difficult to be verbal in in the past.

What can we do to help a child with selective mutism to be at ease and enjoy these events?

These situations can be a great opportunity to help the child to feel at ease and potentially start to be verbal with new people BUT some planning is necessary.

1. Brief everyone about selective mutism – they should ask the child no questions at the start and make no comments about the child not talking. People may be well meaning but may unintentionally put pressure on the child to speak by making comments such as

“Are you going to talk to me this time?” – these comments do not help and actually make it harder for the child, so it is best if visitors are briefed in advance.

2. Warm the child up by helping them to be verbal with you at home before visitors arrive; perhaps play a game in the living room. I have a list of games that I use here

3. If everyone arrives at the same time, this can be overwhelming for the child. It is best if visitors arrive in a staggered way, so the child can get used to each visitor’s presence before the next arrives.

4. When the visitor arrives, it’s fine if they say hello to everyone and are friendly but they should not put too much focused attention on the child at the start.

5. This situation could be a good opportunity for fading in (sliding in) a new person, provided it is done in a careful and non-overwhelming way for the child. The key is that the situation should be focused on the child having fun and talking with the person they are comfortable to talk to, with the new person discretely in the background, and gradually getting closer and joining in when the child is ready.

I discuss this method in this video

6. If you are visiting another home, be the first to arrive if possible so that the child has some time to get used to the new environment before it gets busy. Perhaps you could bring a game from home and play it in the empty living room before other people arrive.

7. If the child is unable to be verbal, initiate non-verbal games or activities such as drawing, colouring in, play dough, making cookies etc so that the child is occupied and engaged without pressure to talk.

8. It may be useful to lend my short and concise book 'Understanding Selective Mutism - A Beginner's Guide' to visitors prior to them interacting with the child to help them to understand selective mutism. You can find my book here

9. As family gatherings may be an opportunity for exposures, my book 'My name is Eliza and I don't talk at school' which can be found here can be useful. This book can be read on multiple levels, as a guidebook for adults or as a therapeutic tool to be used with children with selective mutism.

Overall, at family gatherings the key is that the child is at ease and no pressure is put on them; if the situation doesn’t allow for fading in (as it’s too busy etc) then absolutely don’t put pressure on the child to talk. The ultimate goal should be to help the child to feel at ease and enjoy their time with family.

Wishing you a lovely time at your family gathering!

Lucy :)

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