A wonderful parent reached out to me. She was concerned about her daughter’s recent regression in battling selective mutism. The six-year-old used to be more interested in practicing bravery but lately just doesn’t seem as interested in trying to overcome the anxiety. Why do setbacks like these happen? How can a child be doing well one minute, then the next they’re no longer interested in trying? Maybe you’ve noticed this behavior with your own child (or yourself).
I believe it boils down to human nature. Imagine you feel you need to lose 20 lbs of excess weight. You read about this amazing new program that guarantees you’ll lose that weight within one month. You’re suddenly excited and ready to face the challenge. Success means you’ll be wearing that cute swimsuit with confidence THIS summer! Day one comes and goes with ease, you’re motivated. Days two and three, still fun. You’re doing the exercises exactly as they are laid out in the program and eating healthier. You already feel better even if the scale hasn’t shown any changes yet. Day four comes around and you’re starting to get a little tired of this program already. But day 5 rejuvenates your desire and motivation because your scale reads a two-pound weight loss. Yes! So, you’re pumped to see days six and seven. As you enter week 2, you’re beginning to feel tired of spending so much extra time on those daily exercises, not to mention your stomach keeps growling throughout the day. Sure, the scale said you’re losing weight, but it’s not happening as quickly as you had expected. Your desire isn’t as strong as it was last week, even though you’re improving. You think about that cute swimsuit and do the math in your head. At this rate, you’re losing two-three pounds/week, it’ll take you three times longer than you anticipated. Summer will be over. You begin to re-think this whole new program and decide maybe it’ll be better to put it off until next spring.
What happened? You were doing so well and improving your health. Why couldn’t you stick to that diet and lifestyle change? For me, I get bored with doing the same old thing. It’s hard to find the motivation to change and even harder to find the motivation to continue with the changes for the long term.
Looking at this example gives you a better understanding of why the six-year-old is regressing with her bravery in battling SM. The incentives initially started were fun and new. She was interested and excited. She might have even experienced proudness of her accomplishments, but most likely she just enjoyed the stickers she got for her calendar or whatever other forms of extrinsic incentives were used. If the same system is in place with the same incentives over a prolonged time frame, she will get bored and lose interest in earning those “fun” items. It’s called burn-out. It happens to adults all the time, especially when overworked in less than fulfilling jobs. It can happen to children too.
What can you do if your child becomes stagnant with their progress in battling SM? You have a few choices.
- Give them a brief break from the program (take a week off with no focus on trying brave acts; similar effect as going on a vacation)
- Change the incentives (switch from extrinsic to intrinsic rewards; an extrinsic award is a physical item given and an intrinsic reward is an intangible award of recognition or time spent awarding the child)
- Child chooses dinner
- Play a game with the child (of their choice)
- The child gets to stay up 15 minutes past normal bedtime
- Read a favorite book to the child (or an extra book at bedtime)
- Family movie night
- Extra time spent with the child (how they choose…passing ball, playing with playdough, building Legos, playing with stuffed animals, etc)
- Take them to a park
- Blow bubbles outside
- Have a paper plane contest
- Dance a silly dance together
- Reduce your expectations of their brave skills (make the SM challenges a little easier for a while until your child is ready to tackle the hard stuff again)
For more info on intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards, here’s a great article: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-use-rewards-to-motivate-kids/