By Jaime Sanders, Buzzworthy Blogs
My youngest son was always quite different from my other children. He was the smallest and most clingy. He could never be still and loved to eat. He cried the most and disliked being anywhere without me. But most of all, he never really cared to be around anybody that wasn’t me. He would throw a fit whenever anyone would try to hold him. He wouldn’t look at anyone either, his face turned in the opposite direction. At the time I thought that it was just him being obscenely attached to his mother. His father wouldn’t even do most of the time. At home, he was most comfortable and at ease. He played happily with his siblings and was full of expression. But as soon as I (or both myself and my husband) would leave him he would cry until I returned. I felt like I couldn’t do anything because he needed me so much. It seemed to be a very long phase of separation anxiety. By the time he was around 2 he became better just being with his father. That I was grateful for. When I was finally successful at weaning him off the breast at 16 months his attachment started to lessen, although not by much.
He still didn’t care to be around other people very much. At daycare, he did okay. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about playing with the other children and remained very quiet. The only time he showed excitement was when either myself or my husband came to pick him up. His shyness didn’t give me cause for concern. I, myself, am pretty quiet in public situations so I didn’t fret over it. By the time he started Pre-K his behavior around others became more noticeable to me. He seemed scared of the other kids in his class and never spoke with them. He played quietly and did his work in silence. I volunteered as much as I could in his class just to make him feel more comfortable. Sometimes, he would cry so hard when I tried to leave that I just stayed an hour or two longer to ease his anxieties. His class happened to be an inclusion class where children with learning and behavioral disabilities were a part of it. I think that the children with the behavioral problems frightened him. He would look at them as if to say, “What is wrong with you?” He had two teachers in that class, Mrs. Harris and a special education teacher. I’m still very close friends with Mrs. Harris. She did all she possibly could to make that first year of school for him as comfortable as possible. I could never thank her enough for that.
When it was time for Kindergarten, I enrolled him in the same school as his brother and sister. I figured that going to the same school as his siblings would make him feel more comfortable. My other son was pretty shy too and finally opened up around the first grade so I was thinking that his younger brother would follow suit. That wasn’t the case and hasn’t been. Each year he remained quiet. He didn’t seem to make any friends or talk to any of the other children. Participating in class wasn’t something that he did voluntarily. His teachers would always say how polite and well mannered he was and that when he did speak it was so soft that it was almost inaudible. His shyness affected his work somewhat as he approached the third grade. His teacher, who is also a neighbor of mine, was becoming concerned about his unresponsiveness. He wouldn’t answer any questions and would just stare at her. She was unable to decipher if he understood the material that she was teaching. At home, he would sometimes do that to me and his father and he pretty much always did that when we went out. He would rely on his siblings or his parents to answer for him because we knew that he wasn’t comfortable around strangers or new environments. But when I had to go into the school for a meeting with his teacher, the vice principal and the speech language pathologist I was scared and nervous. Everyone thought that he might have a speech problem but I assured them that he spoke very well at home. He failed the test the SLP gave him but it was just in situations where he was uncomfortable that he shut down. So, we agreed that it most likely wasn’t that. I made an appointment with his pediatrician to discuss what’s been going on at school and told them that I’ll know where to go from there.
I was devastated. No mother wants for their child to have any difficulties in life and he’s such a sweet boy. That made all of it harder to deal with. His pediatrician recommended seeing a therapist that specializes with children. Now, I see a therapist for my depression and anxiety. To know that I had to take my child to one didn’t sit comfortably with me at first. I couldn’t take the guilt knowing if my mental illness has anything to do with what’s going on with him. After his first session, his therapist diagnosed him with having Selective Mutism. Selective Mutism is a rare anxiety disorder. According to the Selective Mutism Foundation:
Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by not speaking outside the home to select individuals or in select settings, which continues for more than one month. Most commonly found in children, they understand spoken language and have the ability to speak but often are reluctance to speak in some settings, have a phobia of speaking and fear of people. Selective Mutism is related to severe anxiety, shyness, and social anxiety.
The first symptoms of Selective Mutism are usually noticeable between the ages of 1 to 3 years. However, it is usually not recognized until the child begins school and is requested to respond verbally and/or interact in social situations, including pre-school, elementary school and community environments. Sometimes, even then, the child is viewed as shy and it is assumed that the shyness is temporary and will be outgrown. The cause has not been established. However, recent research suggests the possibility of genetic influence or vulnerability for Selective Mutism.
For those experiencing severe forms of Selective Mutism, immediate intervention is advisable because the symptoms can increase. Generally speaking, a younger child has a good chance of recovering, if treated, because of the shorter interval of time where no verbalization has occurred in school or in other major settings. Selective Mutism is not a speech disorder nor is it Autism.
I dove head first into finding out everything I could about it. I felt relieved that there was an explanation for his extreme shyness and that with cognitive behavioral therapy targeted towards children with anxiety disorders, he will gradually get better. It was also good that I got him properly diagnosed. He was eight years old at the time and the older he gets the harder it is to treat. I had another meeting with his teacher, SLP and vice principal and told them about his diagnosis and treatment plan. I gave them information about it and recommendations from his therapist on how to approach him in the classroom. He started to improve in class thanks to his therapy. He’s eleven now and in the fifth grade. He still needs tutoring in math and reading but overall he’s doing well. He hasn’t needed therapy in some time but after a talk with him today, I’m going to get him back into it. He still has a lot of anxiety about new situations and having conversations with his peers. It breaks my heart when he tells me he hasn’t any friends. I want the best for him and that includes having the proper tools to work through his anxiety.
Being someone who suffers from two mental illnesses is extremely challenging. Having a child with one is even harder. I want to protect him and keep him close but that will only hurt him. I feel responsible for his anxiety disorder and harbor extreme amounts of guilt. In order to make him feel okay about his feelings I have frequent talks with him about my own anxiety and how it makes me feel. Opening up about how it affects me allows him to be open with me. Doing this lets me know where he stands in all of this and helps me decide what needs to be done as far as seeking treatment. Like all parents, I just want what’s best for him. Even though he’s getting bigger and will be starting middle school in the fall, he’ll always be my special little guy. He and my other children are always my biggest priority and I will do everything in my power to ensure as normal and comfortable a life as possible for all of them.
Other Selective Mutism organizations:
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
- K12 Academics
- NYU Child Study Center
- Selective Mutism and Childhood Anxiety Disorders Group