Selective mutism, characterized by the inability to speak only in certain places, such as school or public locations, typically begins at a young age. Older children who might not have received effective treatment carry behavior patterns and maladaptive coping mechanisms into their teen years, which contribute to their anxiety and possible social phobias. By engaging your selectively mute teen in various activities, you can address some of the issues at the core of your child’s anxiety.
According to Ricki Blau in an article for the Selective Mutism Group website, hands-on activities or staying physically active allow teens to feel more engaged and less distracted by anxiety. Additionally, gross motor and directed physical activities help children with self-regulation, which helps reduce anxiety. Try an art class with small attendance or a small sports team. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, small, cooperative groups will be less intimidating to your teen.
Blau also suggests dramatic activities for teenagers with selective mutism. Some selectively mute teens might actually feel more comfortable talking through a character than just as themselves, and playing a role potentially boosts confidence. Other teens might be comfortable singing or acting in a group, so they are not singled out or put on the spot. Even if your teen does not want to act in a dramatic role, he can participate behind the scenes as a stage manager, lighting technician or writer. All these roles improve confidence and give your teen a chance to interact socially with his peers.
Have a family game night with activities like board games, crafts or food preparation. These activities encourage conversation and allow the use of eye contact, according to the Children’s Hospital of East Ontario. If your teen feels comfortable talking to his family, these activities give your teen the opportunity to practice healthy social skills. As your teen gains more confidence talking in a familiar setting, he can translate those skills he picks up to other social situations. Do not force your teen to communicate in other settings because you could make his mutism worse.
Since anxiety or social phobias are likely the root of your teen’s selective mutism, you should address this issue head on. Try guided imagery or breathing techniques to reduce feelings of anxiety. Give your teen opportunities for non-verbal communication, such as signing or gesturing. Gradually encourage your teen to use words and eventually full sentences. Encouragement is much different than persuasion or forcing your teen to speak, and you should not punish your teen for not speaking. Instead, praise your teen for even small advances in reducing his anxiety or improving his speech. If you are concerned that your teen's anxiety levels might be too high, contact a licensed medical professional for help.