The holiday season can be a very busy and stressful time, especially for children with anxiety. But, that doesn’t mean that you need to avoid the celebrations. With all the activities and parties going on, there are numerous opportunities to help children with selective mutism (SM) practice their bravery. Here are five ideas to get you started. (Read about the basics of Exposure Therapy here. ) Remember that every child has unique challenges, so please tailor any activity you choose to meet the child’s individual needs.
This may sound easy, but for some children with selective mutism, it can be very difficult to hand over a gift to someone, even if they really want to. If a child has difficulty with this, role-play handing out and receiving gifts. You can make it fun by pretending to be Santa, elves, or other characters. Children working on verbalizing may have the goal to say something simple while delivering the gift, such as “Merry Christmas” “Happy Hanukkah” or “This gift is for you.” If the child is able to say “Thank you” when receiving gifts, that is great – and unusual. Alternatively, the child can give a high-five, thumbs-up, or keep a little stash of cards that say “Thanks” that can be handed to gift-givers.
Make Gingerbread Houses with Friends
Invite a small group of friends to your house to decorate gingerbread houses. As the children are intent on making their houses, the pressure to speak diminishes and some children with SM will spontaneously begin to speak. There are also many opportunities for forced-choice questions during this activity. Best of all, making gingerbread houses allows children to express their unique creativity and make a fun memory.
Host an Open House
Children with SM can help with an open house in many ways. Think about what the child would be able to do that is just a little bit of a stretch. Perhaps the child could answer the door, take the guests’ coats, serve beverages, participate in a game, help younger children make crafts, or play music during the event. Maybe simply being present around guests and continuing to talk to parents and siblings in front of others is an appropriate goal. It’s a good idea to also plan ahead and identify a quiet place that the child can retreat to for a short break if feeling overwhelmed.
Caroling can be tricky for children with SM. My family has a long-standing caroling tradition and so we have found unique ways for Buttercup and Petunia to participate through the years. Non-verbal children can ring bells, play instruments, hold-up props, or hold a basket of small treats or gifts to offer to the people listening. Some children may be able to mouth the words, or sing very quietly. Higher levels goals could include using greetings and initiating conversations with listeners. Although reluctant at first, my girls always warm-up after a few minutes and end up having a wonderful time!
Participate in School or Community Programs
Many schools and community organizations present holiday programs. If the child’s school, church, dance class, music group, scouts, etc., is involved in a performance, help the child with SM to participate as much as possible. Lots and lots of practice is the key to successful participation, along with some external motivators in many cases. Giving children with SM choices, such as which part to play, where to stand, who to stand next to, and what to wear will help reduce anxiety and increase their ability to participate.
The holidays are already stressful for adults and children alike. Remember to focus on making exposures enjoyable and low-pressure. The activity should be a stretch for the child and take her a little outside her comfort zone, but not enough to overwhelm her. With planning and consistency, the holiday season can be a time of tremendous growth for children with selective mutism.