Holidays are a time of joy and family. But when selective mutism is involved, they can be stressful and scary, putting more focus on social interactions. If you don’t have SM, it’s hard to imagine why a person can talk fine with one family member but not another. This anxiety disorder is confusing and exhibits differently in each person. It’s best to keep an open mind and be understanding to the sufferer.
Here are a few helpful hints for handling the holidays with Selective mutism…
- Plan ahead – Explain in detail to the SM sufferer what to expect and who will be present. Also discussing optional phrases on how to respond to certain extended family members may improve their chance at being verbal. Packing a bag of toys (maybe even prizes they can win for bravery) will help redirect their attention when the socializing stress gets too high. And talking with the extended family ahead of time (not with your child present), explaining SM and how best for them to respond is helpful. Ask them to reduce focus on your child by saying, “It’s wonderful seeing you today,” rather than asking them direct questions like, “How are you doing?”
- Set realistic goals – Emotions are already high around the holidays because there’s something different going on in life. This time may not be the best time for a strict therapy with your child/SM sufferer. Try to avoid expecting them to respond a certain way, instead accept however they respond as normal. When we expect a certain reaction and don’t get it, we’re disappointed. But when we have no expectations, how can we be disappointed?
- Slowly ease into exposure – start with one extended family member in the same room as your SM child. If they show signs of being comfortable (they may talk or may just use body language to communicate; accept either form), then gradually add other people into the mix. Try to avoid leaving your SM child in a room with a large group of extended family right away, ease into this scenario.
- Validate their emotions – communicate with your child and let them know you understand the added stress they are feeling (you may be feeling it too); recognize their small successes (Did they make eye contact with Uncle Bob?, Did they smile at Aunt Lucy? Acknowledge these feats.
- Downtime – Have a quiet area scouted out ahead of time where your child can go and play alone with their toys if the stress becomes too much for them. But don’t keep them there the whole party, exposure is an excellent approach for learning to control the anxiety social situations evoke. They’ll never learn to overcome if they always avoid. But if they show signs of being overly stimulated (whining, agitation, irritability, tantrums…any out of the normal behaviors) then it’s time for a brief break from the chaos.
This year may be easier for sufferers with the limited in-person events. But then again, it may prove to be more challenging if they are expected to be present in front of a camera. Whatever your plans are for your celebrations, prepare your SM sufferer with as many details as you can. And try not to “expect” a certain response from them.
Good luck and have fun. You are making memories!