Q. Our daughter Kristin (age 12) socializes almost totally through social media. In addition to avoiding talking with peers, I’m told she doesn’t raise her hand in class. When called on she looks down, mumbles and can’t be understood. Her teachers try to get her to speak out but they don’t have much success. We want her to be assertive and speak up in her interactions so she’ll be successful in all areas of her life. Why is she having this difficulty? One friend suggested that Kristin might have selective mutism. Could this be the case?
A. Why do some children not speak up? One of many reasons cited is the increasing use of technology instead of face-to-face verbal interactions. School personnel have noticed there are increasing numbers of students having difficulty conversing and maintaining eye contact.
There are other reasons for not speaking up. One reason involves living with a highly-controlling caregiver: controlling people tend to use a lot of negative reinforcement and the people living with them often fear not saying or doing the right thing, and react to the manipulation by not speaking. Non-verbally they say, “You can’t make me talk.”
Another reason for a silent child involves having a parent who does all the talking for him; the child’s silence becomes a habit. Lack of speaking in some children can involve an inner self-esteem problem, shyness, introverted tendencies or even a hearing problem. And selective mutism is a rare psychiatric disorder that usually starts before age five.
The following suggestions hold promise for improvement regardless of the cause of not verbally communicating regularly.
1. Have your child evaluated by and work with a mental health professional to learn skills for decreasing anxiety and increasing communication.
2. Limit the use of cell phone and computer time.
3. Enroll her in an activity involving interacting with others in a special interest area.
4. Resist speaking for her. If she’s asked a question, give her an opportunity to use gestures, writing or in some way provide an answer herself.
5. Check your parental behaviors to determine if you are using criticism, guilt, shame or any negative tactics. Use positive reinforcement for any improvement in speaking or other tasks.
6. Work with teachers and school personnel who can help your child improve her communication.
7. Avoid creating anxiety-producing situations at home and model relaxation. If a situation causes anxiety, demonstrate how to use deep breathing and relaxation techniques as well as problem-solving skills rather than talking at length about how the situation is awful or hopeless.
8. Create “can do” expectations. Assure your child that she can do rather than just saying she can’t do something. Highly successful people often speak of a parent telling them they could succeed at most anything.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.
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