It can often be confusing for a child as to why their sibling is a chatterbox at home but outside the home, they aren’t able to speak. They may often wonder why their sister who is very vocal about the ice cream flavor they want at home is the same one that isn’t able to order her favorite flavor at the local ice cream shop, or why their brother who is an active playmate at home isn’t able to share about their favorite toy while on the playground. It is important to remember that children may have similar questions about a sibling with selective mutism (SM) as do parents about their child, but often have little information or resources available to them.
Below are a few useful tips in having conversations with your children at home about their sibling with SM:
Have open conversations. Having conversations about a sibling’s diagnosis (whether that is SM or otherwise) shows children that these topics are not taboo and are important to discuss. Being open and honest with the sibling can ease worries and clear up any confusion or misinformation.
When having these conversations, it is important to be clear, direct, and factual.
Create developmentally appropriate dialogue. For younger children, a sibling’s SM diagnosis can be explained in simple, tangible language. For example, you can explain it as, “when your brother is outside of our house, his worries get TOO big, and he has a hard time using his brave voice. He is working on his brave talking by practicing every day.”
For older children, a more direct and transparent explanation can be used. For example, if a sibling is developmentally ready, you can introduce the name of the diagnosis– in this case, selective mutism. If your child knows the right terms to use, they will have tools to learn more on their own and be an advocate for their sibling. One way to explain selective mutism to an older child is, “your sister has anxiety, which makes it hard for her to speak when she isn’t comfortable. Her type of anxiety is called selective mutism. She is practicing being brave and is working hard to overcome this anxiety.”
Make it relatable. It may be helpful to find appropriate comparisons to help your children understand their sibling’s SM. For example, you can say, “remember when sleeping in the dark was hard for you, and so you worked every day at being brave in your room at night? Just like being in the dark was hard for you, talking can feel scary for your sister, and just like we worked together on making the dark feel less scary for you, we are going to help talking feel less tricky for your sister.”
Help your child understand their involvement. Oftentimes, children feel a sense of responsibility for their siblings with SM and feel as though they must take on more responsibilities than the average sibling. It is important to remind your children of their “job,” explaining it along these lines: “Your job as a big brother is to simply be a big brother! Play, laugh, and have fun. However, while playing, laughing, and having fun together, your sister may need to practice being brave with her talking voice. Remember to let her practice being brave and talk for herself, even if it feels hard when she is working on building her brave muscles.”
Validate your child’s feelings. Siblings may experience a variety of emotions in relation to their sibling’s selective mutism, both positive and negative. Create a space for open dialogue where your child can express their feelings, and you can acknowledge and validate them. It isn’t always easy to see someone you love struggle, and while it feels like the easiest and best thing to do for you and your sibling is talk for them, you are actually helping them by allowing them to practice brave talking on their own.
Keep these conversations ongoing. Communicate clearly with your children that the family can continue to discuss SM symptoms, that they have a safe place to process their thoughts, and that you are open to any additional questions at any point in the future.