Teens with selective mutism talk in certain situations, but not others.

Activities for Selectively Mute Teens

by Jaime Budzienski

Selective mutism usually begins in childhood and is characterized by a child not speaking in certain situations (i.e., school) but speaking normally in others (i.e., at home or with friends). Teens with selective mutism may show symptoms of an anxiety disorder, display extreme shyness, have an intense fear of embarrassment in front of peers, and be socially isolated and withdrawn, says the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If your teen has selective mutism, try engaging her in some activities to encourage communication.

1. Educating the Community

To help your teen with selective mutism, you'll need to help others in her social circle understand her unique needs, says the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, a pediatric health and research center. Talk with family members, friends, school staff and classmates to educate them, and adjust your script depending on the audience. For example, you might say: "You know how some people are very shy? (Insert teen's name) is so shy, that it's actually a condition called 'selective mutism,' which is a type of severe anxiety," or "Treat (insert name) the same way you'd want someone to treat you. Be nice to her and include her in activities -- ask her if she wants to play or join in."

2. Cognitive Strategies

Your teen may have "worry thoughts" about others hearing her voice, or asking questions about why she never talks. Try teaching her "coping thoughts" to overcome these, recommends the Children's Hospital. Encourage her to replace them with more positive thoughts such as "My voice sounds fine," "It's okay to worry about my voice from time to time," or "They're not laughing at me."

3. Behavioral Strategies

Come up with a step-by-step plan to help your teen do more "speaking up" behaviors, and a system to positively reinforce tries at communication, says the Children's Hospital. Have your teen help you come up with a plan, which may include earning things she enjoys like going to the movies, buying some new music, or staying up late on a school night. If she isn't having any success with the plan, it may be too ambitious and you may need to simplify the goals.

4. Gradual Communication

Take a step-by-step approach to non-verbal and verbal communication with your teen, and work up to talking. At first, try encouraging gestures and writing, and then progress to whispered messages that you might translate to a familiar person. When she has mastered those, proceed to yes/no questions, then one-word answers. Try to avoid asking your teen direct questions and using extended eye contact, which can increase her anxiety. To encourage communication in everyday life, try talking, making comments and including your teen in conversation without pressure.

About the Author

Jaime Budzienski has contributed essays and articles to the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," "Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine" and the "Boston Parents Paper." She holds a B.F.A. in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and a master's degree in education from UMASS Boston.

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