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Helping Children With Selective Mutism During the Holidays

How to be supportive and help kids shine during family gatherings and parties

Writer: Lindsay Macchia, PhD

Clinical Expert: Lindsay Macchia, PhD

en Español

For many people, holidays represent times of happiness. It is the season to spend extra time with loved ones, cook delicious meals, indulge in sweets, and exchange stories and presents. However, for children with selective mutism, holidays can also be stressful. That’s because family gatherings and parties can put more pressure on kids to socialize, and children with SM have great difficulty speaking outside of their comfort zone.

During the holidays, with all of the different people, places and activities, it is common for children with selective mutism to feel overwhelmed. Some may express that they are worried or uncomfortable, while others may show it through their behavior, with more meltdowns or more whining or clinging. To make your holiday season less stressful and more fun, here are some helpful tips.

Do some prep work

Think ahead and plan how the day and night will look, as best as you can. Pack a bag of toys (MANY toys!) and plan to bring some prizes to reinforce all of the brave things your child will be doing.

Part of your planning can include preparing others, as well. Let family and friends know where your child is in terms of her bravery so they know what things to do and what things to avoid. For example, let others know it would be helpful if they said, “Nice to see you!” rather than, “Hi. How are you?”

Set realistic expectations

It’s important to check in with yourself over what your expectations are. You might have an idea of what you think “should” happen during the holidays, but it is essential to be realistic and meet your child where he is at. Expecting him to speak with cousins he only sees once a year may simply be too hard for now.  Speaking to you in front of cousins may be a more appropriate goal. You never want to set your child up for a situation in which he may fail.

After you’ve set some realistic expectations, make sure to share them with your child, too. Not only will realistic expectations reduce everyone’s stress, but they will also empower your child and help him feel proud and accomplished.

Start slow

Kids with selective mutism need time to warm up. Start by sitting off to the side in your house or your relative’s house. You could even start in the car, on the front porch or in a separate, quiet room. Get your child feeling comfortable in this new environment by praising her, reflecting what she is saying and following her lead as you play a game that she likes. Refrain from asking questions in the beginning, and then slowly prompt her.

Validate the struggle and praise the effort

It always feels good to know that you are understood. Validating statements like, “I know this is hard for you” and, “I understand that you are nervous,” can go a long way with children with SM. And then remember, praise, praise, praise! Expressing “Awesome job playing in this room with me!” and “Thanks for telling me that!” are great ways to increase verbalizations and make your child feel good. The more enthusiasm the better!

Build momentum

Remember that room or quiet area of the house you chose earlier? Know that you can always return to it if you or your child need a break. But don’t stay too long — it is important to get your child back out there and keep his engagement up. If he is speaking to one member of the family, go ahead and slowly introduce another. If he is simply playing and gesturing, that’s okay, too. Meet your child where he is at and enjoy the party!

This article was last reviewed or updated on January 30, 2024.