Selective Mutism: Why Certain Words are Trickier (hello / goodbye / please / thank you / sorry)
Certain words are particularly hard for children with selective mutism to say.
Words such as, 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you', 'I love you' and 'sorry'.
Parents often tell me:
"My child cannot say hello, goodbye, please or thank you".
Even if they are able to talk to a specific person, they may still freeze when bumping into a person in the street and are unable to say "hello". Or if they are given a gift, they are unable to say "thank you".
In this article I am going to explain why these specific words are particularly tricky for children with selective mutism to say.
1. They are pressure words
If you think about it, if you don't say hello, goodbye, please or thank you, you are considered as 'rude' by society.
Therefore, children may be feeling pressured, unintentionally, with these words.
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder and our first step is to take away pressure around speech. As these words are pressure words, and if you don't say them you are considered as 'rude', they therefore naturally elicit more anxiety within children.
2. Children have more experience with not being able to say these words
The child has probably been in many situations where people have said "say hello", "say goodbye", "say please", "say thank you" "say sorry".
We as adults around our children, have probably unintentionally put them on the spot and said "say please", "say thank you" etc. By putting them on the spot, unintentionally we have put the spotlight on them and prompted children to say these words when we know they cannot say them.
Therefore, the child has had the experience of not being able to say these words and therefore may have built the association of "I cannot say these words".
An example of a scenario may be that you are walking down the street when you bump into somebody you know. We know that your child won't be able to say "hello" yet we still unintentionally say: "Say hello". This has probably happened many times and so they now have had a lot of experience of being in situations where they have been prompted to say these specific words, yet being unable to do so.
When children with selective mutism are prompted to do something that they cannot do, they experience the negative cycle of reinforcement. They freeze, and when we rescue them by saying 'hello' for them, they experience relief that they have gotten out of the situation, and they have now learnt that 'I cannot do it'.
Therefore, they have probably had more experience being in situations where they have been prompted to say these specific words, they have been unable to say them, and therefore they have now built an association that these are words that they cannot say.
3. They are initiation words
Initiation is harder speech than responding, and therefore these words are harder for children with selective mutism because they require initiation rather than responding to a prompt.
We know that for children with selective mutism, responding is a lot easier than initiating. An example of responding is answering a question.
If a child can talk to person and if that person asks a very simple question, e.g. "how old are you?" or "what’s your favourite colour?" this is easier for children to respond verbally to than for the child to approach the person and say something spontaneously.
Therefore, responding is easier than initiation.
Saying 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please' or 'thank you' is not responding to a verbal prompt from a person. The person is not asking something specific; the child is instead expected to say these things spontaneously without a verbal prompt.
We know that initiation or spontaneous speech is a higher level of speech than responding, and therefore these words are harder for children with selective mutism because they are initiation words.
4. There is no warm up time
With these specific words, the child often does not have space to become comfortable and verbal in front of a person. For example, you unexpectedly bump into someone in the street and we expect the child to say 'hello', or if someone gives them something, they are expected to say 'thank you' - there is no warm-up time.
A child with selective mutism is not given the space to begin to warm up, feel at ease and begin to talk in front of that person first. This element of 'warm up time', which is so important for children with selective mutism, is taken away, so naturally they will find these words more challenging.
These specific words often come without warm-up time and therefore they are more difficult for children with selective mutism to say.
What Do I Recommend?
Take away the pressure around these words.
Don’t prompt your child to do things before they can. As much as it is important to identify the child’s goals and put a plan in place to reach those goals, we know that if a child finds these specific words more challenging then we leave those to the end.
My advice to parents that I am working with is to leave hello, goodbyes, please and thank-you’s for the very, very end because we know that those are particularly challenging words.
It is of course possible to work on these words when the child is ready, but for now, we want to be taking away pressure. These words are exceptions to the rule of 'rescuing' - you can say 'hello' or 'goodbye' on your child’s behalf without drawing attention to the fact that they aren‘t saying them.
If your child is ready, perhaps you can prompt them to wave instead, or another non-verbal action that is an achievable step for your child.
Should someone give your child a present, you can say "thank you so much, she will like it!" and perhaps your child can write them a thank you note later on, or draw them a picture to say thank you.
There are many ways to express these things without having to do so verbally.
We want to avoid putting our children in situations where we say: "say hello", "say goodbye" as this will increase their anxiety, and this is the opposite to our goal!
Of course, it is absolutely possible to work on your child’s achievable goals and then gradually work up to those higher-level goals at your child's pace.
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I also have an online training course for schools which has been shown in schools internationally. This training is so crucial because we know that the first step is to create a supportive school environment for a child with selective mutism. If you would like your child’s school to receive school training on selective mutism, please click this link:
Wishing you all the very best in helping your child with selective mutism!