I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation lately. As parents, we try hard to motivate our children to do many different things such as keep their room clean, eat healthy foods, treat others with kindness and respect, and do their best in school. Some children are easily motivated, while others are very difficult to persuade.
When it comes to selective mutism, motivating children to take small steps toward what they fear most can be extremely challenging. Parents desperately want their children to overcome the anxiety that prevents them from communicating so that their children can freely share their thoughts and emotions and advocate for themselves. Children with selective mutism desperately want their anxiety to go away too, but they often try to avoid the anxiety-provoking situation instead of learning how to face it and deal with it. The fear motivating them to stay silent is very strong, but we can help them find ways to beat the fear by finding an even stronger motivation. The challenge is to discover what types of motivation work best for the individual child. Successful treatment must include motivation techniques that the child responds to.
I have two very different daughters with selective mutism. Although they have similar challenges, I have seen how their unique personalities influence their symptoms and treatment progress. Through a lot of trial and error and observation, I am learning what motivates my children. Buttercup is pretty easily motivated and responds well to external rewards and seems to have intrinsic motivation to achieve her goals. Petunia sometimes responds to incentives, but seems more motivated by new and interesting experiences and being in control of her own actions.
When trying to identify what motivates someone, it is helpful to review some common types of motivation. There are two main categories of motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from external forces, most commonly rewards or punishments. Intrinsic motivation comes from a person’s inner desires. Intrinsic motivation is typically viewed as being better than extrinsic motivation, however, both types of motivation can work together to help people reach their goals. I’ve created a list of examples for each category below. Some of these examples could fit in either category, depending on how you look at it.
- Incentives or rewards – money, promotions, gifts, activities
- Fear of punishment or consequences
- Social factors – pleasing others, being part of a group, popularity, fame, pride
- Power – being in charge and leading others
- Achievement – the feeling of accomplishment
- Improvement or growth – the act of learning
- Enjoyment – having fun
- Safety and emotional security
- Love for others
- Faith in an outcome (expectancy theory) – you believe it will be successful so you do it
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you experiment with different ways to motivate your child to communicate.
- First, work on decreasing their underlying anxiety as much as possible.
- Make the association with speech positive to counteract the negative association that is created by anxious feelings.
- Make it enjoyable and fun.
- As often as possible, try to incorporate natural positive consequences (the child gets to enjoy eating the ice cream that she ordered).
- Involve children in decisions to increase their sense of control and power.
- Focus on rewards for participation in an activity, not explicitly for speaking (rewards for speaking may heighten anxiety in some children).
- Use rewards for progress toward a certain goal. When the goal is reached, move on and start rewarding for the next goal.
- Always ask yourself, “what is this child capable of?” Unrealistic goals and repeated failures will decrease motivation.
- Frame the act of ‘speaking even when feeling uncomfortable’ as a skill that can be learned with lots of practice and perseverance.
- If the child is not averse to praise, give lots of encouragement and labeled praise so the child knows exactly what behavior is desirable. “Good job for telling me you are hungry.”
- Let children know often that you love them unconditionally.
- Don’t be afraid to change motivation techniques frequently. Some children thrive on new and unexpected ideas.
- Give the child helping roles and responsibilities to increase confidence.
- Help older children explore their future life goals and the impact that their ability to communicate will have on reaching their goals.
- Share other kids’ success stories – how they struggled and overcame.
Remember that each individual is unique and what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another child. If you have a child who seems impossible to motivate, look deeper, keep searching, and don’t give up. Chances are that they have deep intrinsic motivation that will take time and patience to discover.