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Helping children with Selective Mutism during the Coronavirus pandemic

How life has changed so drastically in the last couple of weeks. Only a couple of weeks ago I was in schools in Ireland, busy delivering therapy to children with selective mutism, and before that I was doing the same in Australia and then Thailand and of course here in the UK, not knowing what was to come.

Schools were closed for the last day of my intensive therapy programme in Ireland, and soon after schools in England also closed, as well as in many other countries around the world.

We have been told to minimise contact with others, and to practice ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’.

So how does this impact our SM children?

Many families have contacted me in recent days concerned of how this may impact their children. Some families say that their child has recently started to make progress with SM, perhaps beginning to talk to a teacher at school or to a friend, so it is naturally worrying that schools have now closed and families fear that any progress made may now decline.

Helping children with selective mutism is about 'exposure', which is the opposite to 'social distancing'! It’s a very difficult situation, something that we have never experienced before, so here we are learning together.

What can we do?

It’s so much easier said than done during these uncertain times, but let’s try not to get too caught up in continuing the exposures right now. Of course, if we can find a way to continue, then that is great, but we may need to surrender to the situation and pause for a moment, knowing that we will be able to continue our intervention programme on our return to school and normality. I trust that solutions will come on how we can continue to support children with SM regardless of when they return to school, and I will share inspiration with you as it comes, so continue to keep an eye on my Facebook page here.

Children with selective mutism have an anxiety disorder, so during this time they may be more anxious than other children. At this stage, our priority is keeping our children calm and to minimise their anxiety (as much as we can during this anxiety evoking time).

If our children express worries, listen and acknowledge their fears. Allow them to express themselves, whilst also providing them with child-friendly information on the virus. There are some wonderful stories and videos to help to explain Covid-19 to children and also importantly to bust any myths. The media’s job is to hype the situation, which our children have no doubt been exposed to, so having a calm conversation with them about the facts – that most people actually recover and get better etc will help to put things into perspective.

Our next focus is to focus on FUN! There are a ton of articles about fun activities for children during social isolation; let’s gain some inspiration and use this time as a rare opportunity to have precious time with our children, playing games, baking, bonding. Let our aim be for our children to look back at this time of social isolation as an experience of being at home with family doing lots of fun things!

How can we keep up talking practice?

If our children have started talking to people at school, and we feel they are able to, we could consider digital exposure – perhaps Facetime, Skype calls, WhatsApp audio or video messages or even just recording a video or audio of our child reading / giving a fact about their special interest and then sending this to someone they have started talking too – maybe a friend, school staff member or family member. We are very restricted in what we can do now, but if your child would be comfortable with the above, then of course we can go ahead with this, however, if this will cause additional anxiety during this time then it may not be the best option. As we say, goal number 1 is for our children to feel at ease and having fun!

It’s very much a case by case decision whether digital exposure would be useful or not.

To give an example, I received an email today from a parent of a child that one of our lovely team members, a Confident Children practitioner, has weekly sessions with. The parent asked if we should continue sessions via Skype with the child during this time. My answer to this parent was that at this stage we shouldn't try an online intervention – the child is fully verbal and comfortable with our practitioner in person and having online contact, might set the child back - she might feel uncomfortable with online conversations (in person it's very much play based so a relaxed interaction). Of course, if school is closed for the very long term, then we are happy to reconsider options, however, at this stage we don't want to introduce something new that could increase this child’s anxiety.

On the other hand, I had an online session with a teacher yesterday, and this child loves to send videos of herself talking to the teacher, despite being unable to speak to the teacher at school (see how every child is completely different and unique!) – the child has also started to make some sounds comfortably in sessions, so in this case we discussed that we should definitely keep up the audio / video contact and we will work towards FaceTime calls in small steps.

Other ideas:

Children who do talk to their friends could have ‘virtual playdates’ whereby they play games through a video chat. Video chat is very much reliant on having a ‘conversation’ rather than play – so you could give the children an idea of a game they could play, maybe ‘hangman’, ‘guess the animal I have written down’, ‘Guess Who’ (if both children have the game!) or ‘headbandz’ / ‘post it note – who am I’ etc.

If contact with neighbours, extended family, family friends is possible (please follow current government guidelines and recommendations on this – as this is changing daily) then we could use this as an opportunity to have fading in or sliding in sessions at home.

As always, it’s very much a case of assessing each individual child’s level of speech and whether they are able to access the task – if not, then we never prompt something outside of their reach.

This is a new and ever-changing situation and we are having to learn what is best as we go.

If you, as a parent of a child with SM, feel anxious right now, unsure, uncertain, panicked –this is completely ok. How you are feeling is valid. This is a situation that we could never have anticipated and it is ok to feel exactly how you are feeling. Take a few moments to take some deep breaths now; you are ok, we are ok. Together, as always, we will get through this.

For more on selective mutism, please like to Confident Children Facebook page here and please subscribe to my mailing list at the top of this page.

If you would like to work with me, or someone on my team, we offer Online Sessions (especially useful during this time of social isolation!). We work with parents from all over the world, where we talk through your child and their selective mutism and offer you with individualised support in terms of what your child's goals are and how to help them – if you would like to book an online session, please send us a message here.

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:

Lastly, I have recently written an article about why certain words are harder for children with SM to say (hello, goodbye etc) – you can find this article here.

Sending you and your child with selective mutism all the love in the world, especially at this time.

Lucy x

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