If you have a child or teen with any form of anxiety, this post is for you.
Today, I’ve asked a teen friend of mine, Sarah, to share her story of childhood anxiety and selective mutism in order to encourage other young girls.
May this equip and encourage you and your child.
Selective Mutism is a Form of Childhood Anxiety
Let’s back up a bit. According to the Selective Mutism Center,
Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.
Childhood Anxiety Is A Huge Problem
This is the reality. Childhood anxiety is a pervasive issue in our country.
Nearly 4.4 million children have been diagnosed with childhood anxiety. And sadly, this number doesn’t include millions of others who don’t have a diagnosis.
Mental Health In The Wake of 2020
According to Mental Health America, these numbers have sky-rocketed in all people in the wake of 2020. Specifically,
Young people are struggling most with their mental health.… Not only are the number of youth searching for help… increasing, but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic youth ages 11-17 have been more likely than any other age group to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Rates of suicidal ideation are highest among youth
People screening at risk for mental health conditions are struggling most with loneliness or isolation.
Awareness of Childhood Anxiety Is Key
Unfortunately, many parents, educators, and leaders don’t recognize the signs of anxiety in kids.
As such, it’s essential to bring greater awareness of childhood anxiety in order to improve the long-term well-being of our kids.
What Are The Signs Of Anxiety In A Child?
- Temper tantrums
- “Talking back”
- Skin picking
- Excessive talking
- Not talking
- School refusal
- Trouble sleeping
- Tummy aches
- ADHD-like behaviors (daydreaming, restlessness, and not being able to focus, etc)
How Do You Help A Child With Anxiety?
The implications of living a life with these patterns of behavior can be detrimental for our kids in the long term.
When adults perceive these undesirable behaviors as willful acts without treating the underlying anxiety, we set these kids up for further mental health issues.
Behind The Behavior
In my book, Behind the Behaviors, I discuss the obvious cycle of rewards and consequences that stems from the belief that all behavior is willful.
Ultimately, spreading awareness of childhood anxiety in its many forms will help us better equip our children with what they need to thrive and overcome.
Selective Mutism is just one form of anxiety that affects children and teens.
Let’s hear from Sarah, a 16 year-old girl who’s navigated childhood anxiety and selective mutism since she was a young girl.
Sarah’s Selective Mutism Story
Hi, my name is Sarah and I have Selective Mutism (SM).
Selective mutism is an anxiety-based disorder that makes it really hard to talk to people you don’t know.
Even more so, selective mutism can make it challenging to talk those people you do know.
For example, when you’re in an unfamiliar place or if you’re surrounded by a crowd. Fortunately, at home – you talk just like any other person.
Safety At Home For Kids With Anxiety
All my life people knew me as quiet. I would try to talk to people when they asked me a question, but when I tried to respond the words got stuck.
I would try really, really hard to talk, and when I couldn’t do it I was frustrated and upset at myself.
Why couldn’t I just talk or tell someone my name or raise my hand in class or participate in a game? I just didn’t understand.
WHY WAS IT SO HARD? I struggled with this for a long time.
Living With Selective Mutism Through The Years
When I was little, people just thought I was cute when I didn’t talk and looked to my parents for a response. As I got older, people had higher expectations that I would talk to them.
This only made me more nervous and made it harder to respond. It was overwhelming especially when they just looked at me waiting for me to talk.
Does Selective Mutism Go Away?
If you or someone you know or love struggles with anxiety or selective mutism, know that getting through this is possible.
With lots of hard work you can overcome many of the struggles associated with selective mutism. I know this because I have been through it.
Comparison Is A Theif
“There is no way I could ever do that. How can someone just walk up and order so easily?”
Kids are able to talk in class or at church. They tell jokes, talk to their friends and teachers without any problem.
In my experience growing up, doubts constantly raged my mind as I observed the ease with which all the other kids were able to talk. I would ask myself,
Overcoming The Challenges of Selective Mutism
Fortunately, now that I’ve been working on overcoming SM for 3 1/2 years, it doesn’t seem so impossible. Sure, there are still days when I get frustrated at myself because I think I am taking too long to respond to others.
I feel so much pressure and that alone can add to the problem. To make matters worse, other kids don’t understand when I don’t talk.
Selective Mutism Story: The Struggle To Make Friends
I can get so frustrated and start to doubt myself. There have been many tears and so many moments I wondered if it would ever get easier.
It was hard when my family moved or we went to a new place. Making friends was incredibly difficult because of my struggle with speaking.
I wasn’t about to go up to some random person and start talking to them. The anxiety was so overwhelming that I would wait and pray for them to come talk to me.
Cycle of Paralysis- Selective Mutism & Anxiety
But, if and when they did speak to me, I became even more nervous because they were talking to me. Then the problem became that I wouldn’t know what to do or say. I was just paralyzed and would never say anything back.
Being seen and included in their games or in their conversations was something I longed for. I wanted them to just let me participate alongside them without actually talking to me. In my heart, I just wanted to listen in and feel included.
In the end, I just wanted to hang out with them instead of all by myself.
The Impact of An Audience
Like so many other girls, whenever I was standing by myself, I worried that other people were staring at me.
I know that I’m not alone in my struggle with this feeling of being judged. Lots of girls do, but I think it is maybe harder for someone with SM.
It is very common for those with selective mutism to struggle with a constant sense that they are “on stage.”
Understandably, this sense of constantly being on display adds to heightened states of anxiety. Sarah, too, navigated and felt the deep pain of this.
Stop Making Such a Big Deal
One thing that really embarrassed me was when people made a big deal when I did speak.
“Oh my goodness you can talk. You talked! I’ve never heard you talk that loud before.”
I remember telling all my friends and family to not make a big deal about when I talked to others or did something I hadn’t before.
Now I don’t get as embarrassed, but it kind of annoys me because I don’t like the extra attention it brings.
Hope & Help For Selective Mutism
I first found out I had SM when I was 12 and I remember thinking that I was too old to get therapy for it. Now, looking back I don’t think I was too old. I needed help. There was no way that I could have made progress and survived any of this on my own.
Sarah offers up 5 of the most helpful tips and strategies that have made the biggest impact for her.
5 Tips To Help An Anxious Child With Selective Mutism
#1: The Big Fives
I started with simple goals like saying one of the ‘Big Fives.’
At the time, it felt impossible to even respond with these simple words. Honestly, even waving to someone was difficult. But over time, with practice it slowly it became easier.
The Essential of Safe Relationships
Sarah points to the value of every child having a safe, secure and supportive person in their corner. We see this beautifully portrayed through the Gospel. God’s heartbeat for His people. That message of relationship and connectedness through His Son.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a Professor of Child Health & Development at Harvard University,
Healthy responsive relationships support resilience and can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress that can help us to
respond and adapt to adversity.
#2 Mom, Be That Safe Person
My safest moments were when my mom was there to help me talk when people asked me a question. Even with my speaking goals being so small, leaning into the Big Five words, it was still so hard. There were so many late nights talking to my mom, crying about having to speak the next day.
Even if my job was to say one word, I still had doubts about whether I could actually do it. Mom was there to comfort, support and encourage me. We prayed before school and I went nervous but determined. Some days I accomplished my small speaking goal and sometimes I didn’t. Mom was still there to love me regardless.
#3 The Whisper Buddy
There are so many tools I was given when I started therapy – like the importance of having a whisper buddy. A whisper buddy is someone who I can whisper my words to and they will tell others. Also, I learned not to put so much pressure on myself to try to talk.
Over the last couple years, I have seen how using the ‘Big Five’ words and having a whisper buddy have helped me become more comfortable around others. It still isn’t always easy – even writing this letter is a little hard for me. But I can look back and see the progress I have made and know it is worth it to keep pushing myself.
Educate Teachers About Childhood Anxiety
Having to speak in front of the class has been one of the most difficult parts of my selective mutism story. On the first day of school, teachers tend to ask a simple question as a class ice-breaker.
So often, I knew the answer but I could never get the words out. Talking in front of others felt like torture. I think this is because it was in front of my peers, all by myself, with no one to help or support me.
The fear of what they would think about me was too much sometimes. No one could understand how hard it was. When I would try to talk nothing would come out. I tried so hard, but I couldn’t. The words were stuck. I would sit at my desk and try not to cry. I felt defeated and humiliated.
#4 Partner With Heart-Driven Teachers & Do Podcasts?
One of the tools I learned early is that I could still do presentations but to start out small. I started by recording a podcast that only my teacher heard. At first, the podcast felt extremely hard. I was scared because my teachers were gonna hear me talk and not just one sentence but like a whole presentation. Eventually, I started giving presentations to my teachers in person when no one else was in the room.
I discovered that by doing this, it made it a little bit easier to talk to my teachers in person. Something I hadn’t done before. I was so proud of myself for doing that.
#5 Get It Out On Paper
We all know how important it is to process through the junk in our heads. The thoughts and feelings we navigate drive our behavior, sense of self and mindset.
Why do women feel so much better after a good cry or a conversation with a trusted friend?
For our children who struggle to get their words out, Sarah’s next tip is especially important.
Journal It Out
I also find that writing what you feel is important because it can help you release frustrations, fears and doubts. Check out this Delight Yourself in the Lord Scripture Coloring Book as well.
Take Every Thought Captive | 2 Corinthians 10:3-6
After writing out my thoughts, I was able to look back at it and see how far I’ve have come.
Benefits of Suffering With Selective Mutism
If I can do it, so can you. I believe in you! Don’t give up and have courage (even when you are afraid). I’ve come to understand that Selective Mutism is a part of my story. As hard as it is and as much as I wish I didn’t have it, I know that God is using it for good in my life.
Already, I have more compassion and understanding for others who don’t want to talk. I know not to force them to talk – I just want to help make them feel included and seen.
Selective Mutism Is Not Sarah’s Whole Story
Sarah ended this beautifully. She ended with one of the most important lessons about ourselves and our children.
To be included and seen. That’s what we all want. Sometimes, that’s all they need.
(Hagar)… gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me.”
To be seen and known. God teaches us the beauty of loving others by seeing them. Let’s see people through those eyes and most importantly, equip our children with the tools and strategies they need to thrive as the people God designed them to be.
Thank you, Sweet Sarah, for sharing your story. I am grateful for you.
Childhood Anxiety in Your Home?
Friend, did Sarah’s story resonate with you? Maybe you too are parenting an anxious child. If so, you’re not alone. Awhile ago, I posted a question to a private group made up of moms.
If you could solve one major problem with your child, what would it be?
The answers to that question revealed a lot of common issues that parents are facing. However, the number one underlying issue these moms were facing? Kids struggling with anxiety.
Keep reading to learn of some of my favorite resources and tools to help kids with childhood anxiety.
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Sarah Thomas is an outstanding 16 year-old teen girl who has 3 older brothers. That doesn’t seem to bother her though as she says that she likes being the youngest. She also has the gift of music and plays both the clarinet and the piano. Sarah loves playing different board and card games and has a smile that will light up any room.
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