During a school carnival your child with selective mutism is trying desperately to hide behind you as a familiar adult approaches and asks him if he likes his school class. Your son doesn’t respond to the man’s repeated questions. The man then turns to you and says, “Wow, he acts like I’m a complete stranger! If he were my kid I would give him a stern lecture on showing respect!”
You are outside with your kids enjoying a pleasant evening. The children are running around laughing and playing. A neighbor walking by stops to chat. Immediately your child with selective mutism falls silent. The neighbor begins to question all the children and when one child won’t answer she begins to tease, “Cat got your tongue?”
At a family gathering, Grandpa won’t stop asking your SM daughter questions. She doesn’t look at him or respond to any of his questions. He gets frustrated and exclaims, “I am your grandpa, are you ever going to talk to me?”
The hardest thing I have encountered along this journey with my daughters are some awful comments from strangers, friends, and even family. I know this is a challenge that many of us face. Rude comments, whether intentional or not, can set off a shock wave of emotions that can linger long after the incident is over.
You might remain in silent shock after a criticism or lash back with a curt reply that is just as hurtful. Neither of these reactions is bound to be very helpful. You need to stand up for your child but also remember that, in most cases, your child is watching. Is your behavior what you want to model to your child?
What is the best way to respond? I don’t have a magic answer and I think it depends on the situation, but here are a few of my ideas.
There is such a broad lack of awareness and understanding of selective mutism. Take the opportunity to politely share some basic information, or patiently reiterate what you have tried to teach previously.
“Sam is working on overcoming an anxiety disorder called selective mutism. Certain situations create intense anxiety for him which makes him unable to speak even though he would like to.”
“Kelsey is not choosing to ignore you, she literally can’t speak when anxiety strikes and the muscles in her throat tighten up.”
“The best way to help John is to make sure he feels comfortable and avoid any pressure to speak. Trying to force him to talk only increases his anxiety.”
Realize that it can be frustrating for the person trying to communicate with your child. They don’t fully understand your child’s behavior and in most cases have no idea what will help or hurt.
“I know it may appear that Sarah is being rude, but what you are observing is just her trying to cope with the intense anxiety she feels.”
“I know you love Ben and would give anything to have a conversation with him. Ben would love to be able to speak to you too!”
“Interacting successfully with kids who have selective mutism requires some specific skills. It takes a little practice, but it’s not hard to learn and we would love to teach you.”
Protect your child
Don’t allow others to label or criticize your child for their inability to speak. Give strangers a short reply to let them know their comment was not appropriate. Discuss with family members and friends what not to say.
“Please don’t talk about my child like she isn’t here. She is listening and understands everything you are saying.”
“Please don’t judge my child when you have no idea what difficulty he faces.”
Don’t take it personally
That’s what I tell other people when my SM child doesn’t speak to them. But, it goes both ways. Maybe the rude person was having a tough day. Maybe they didn’t realize how how offensive their comment was. In many cases people aren’t trying to be rude – they just don’t know the right thing to say!
Let it go
I’m not talking about ignoring rude comments. I’m talking about letting go of the hurt and anger you feel toward those who have hurt you and your child. This is not an easy task and may take a very long time, but I promise that you will find more joy as you do.
Dealing with rude comments if not fun, but it creates an opportunity for you and your child to teach others, develop resilience, and foster empathy for others.