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How to help a child with Selective Mutism cope with family gatherings

The Christmas period, Easter and other family gatherings can 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 elicit an anxiety response. Additionally, children with Selective Mutism typically get overwhelmed in busy environments with lots of people.

2. Visiting 'non-verbal' environments; extended families homes' that the child has found it difficult to be verbal in in the past also elicit anxiety. The child has memories of not being able to talk there and has built an association e.g. 'I can't talk at grandma's house', causing them to pre-empt the anxiety that they may feel.

What can we do to help a child with Selective Mutism at family gatherings?

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 shouldn't ask your child any questions at the start and make no comments about the child not talking. People may be well meaning but unintentionally put pressure on the child to speak by making comments such as:

“𝑨𝒓𝒆 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒈𝒐𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒂𝒍𝒌 𝒕𝒐 𝒎𝒆 𝒕𝒐𝒅𝒂𝒚?” – 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. Here is a list of games that we use.

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 that 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 a 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.

Please see this method outlined 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 familiar and enjoyable 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 the book here

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

Here are the links to the books.

10. We have recently created a course specifically aimed at friends & family. This is the most comprehensive option to fully brief others on SM and your child. We suggest that you send the course to friends and family before they see your child, or plan an evening with friends and family to watch the course together! This can be a really enlightening session for friends and family to learn about Selective Mutism, start to really understand your child and ask you any questions that the training may spark! The link to this course can be found here.

11. If you would like specialised support for your child, we offer Online Sessions with families all over the world (we have had sessions with families in the UK, USA, Australia, European countries, Asian countries, Africa - literally everywhere!). Find out more about Online Sessions here.

At family gatherings the key is that your child is comfortable, at ease and no pressure is put on them; if the situation doesn’t allow for fading in, then don’t put pressure on your child to talk.

The primary goal is for the child to enjoy their time with family, and create happy memories!

Wishing you a lovely time at your family gathering!

Lucy Nathanson & The Confident Children Team

P.S. If you would like to stay up to date with our Selective Mutism resources, as well as the Selective Mutism events that we run (the majority of these events are online so parents can join worldwide) please join our mailing list at the top of this page! (and you'll get some freebies when you sign up too!)

P.P.S. if you would like our further help, find out about the services we offer here (we can help you wherever you are in the world!)

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