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Selective mutism in teenage. Building self-esteem, with help from Katherine Whitehorn and Reina del Cid

Date posted: Tuesday 22nd December 2015

Katherine Whitehorn, journalist and social commentator, famously wrote, The best career advice to give to the young is, ‘Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it.’ “

Katherine Whitehorn

It doesn’t take us long to know what we like doing best. Sometimes it can take us a while to find what we are good at. Sometimes it can take us an age to find someone who will pay us for doing it. It’s a very lucky person who can do what they love and get paid for it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help children and teens with selective mutism (SM). SM is an anxiety condition where children can talk freely at home but have severe difficulty with talking in front of other people in school. Teens who have been silent in public for many years often have very low self-esteem. They feel that nothing they might say or do will be any good. They fear the negative judgement of others and can develop a sense of perfectionism. This often stifles their ability to express themselves creatively; for fear that people will make negative judgements about their efforts. They can become highly anxious about how they write, draw, paint, play music and even how they dress.

Another stumbling block involves the youngsters’ choices of role models. Many teenagers with a history of selective mutism develop fantasies about what sort of person they could be, if only they could talk in public. They might, for example, set their sights on being as good a talker as the most confident girl in their class, their year, or even the whole school. Some girls find themselves latching onto the girl in class with the most outrageous behaviour, and become their best friend. It’s as if that ‘bad girl’ is the child they think they should be, if only they could talk. They can develop a negative ‘internal mantra’ that they regularly think to themselves, when they are under pressure to speak. This mantra goes something like: ‘I’m no good at talking’ or ‘If only I was a great talker like so-and-so’ or ‘I’ll never be able to talk outside my home.’

Everyone can do something well, but low self-esteem can prevent teens from accepting that they are good at something and developing their skills. Making friends can be a big problem too. As a result, many teens with selective mutism spend most of their free time alone in their bedrooms.

I can hear you thinking: “But loads of teenagers spend hours in their bedrooms; I certainly did.” And you are quite right. Read the biography of any successful creative person and you will find out about the hours they spent on their own as children and teenagers. And here lies a positive thought for children and teens with selective mutism and low self-esteem.

If they have a special interest (and many do), encourage them to spend their time developing that particular fascination or skill. Encourage them to do it for the pleasure it gives them. They can share their pleasure and knowledge and skill with other people when they are ready and want to, or not at all. So if children enjoy playing music, or reading, or drawing, or writing, or making models or developing their IT skills, encourage them to do it.

I can hear you thinking: “How will that help children and teens become less isolated, reduce their dread of talking and increase their social skills?” Good question. I always think of Hanna, who for most of her childhood and teenage had severe anxiety about talking in public, and particularly at school. She enjoyed playing music, but hated the thought of performing. When Hannah went to university to study music, she found herself surrounded by youngsters whose passion for music was just as deep and strong as hers. Soon she was able to perform confidently with her peers, talk about music socially, and take part in discussions in seminars. (Like many of us, however, she never quite mastered asking questions in lectures.) These positive experiences gave Hannah’s self-esteem a huge boost.

Which brings me to young singer Reina del Cid. As far as I know, Reina has never had selective mutism, but describes herself as feeling highly anxious. As a teenager, she spent a lot of time on her own. But while she was alone in her room she worked on her guitar and vocal skills. She’s now in a band with like-minded friends, who are able to express themselves musically and have a lot of fun while doing it. Will Reina become a massive star? Maybe, maybe not. But she has built a big fan base on YouTube and expresses herself confidently and successfully. That’s a good role model if ever there was one.

Reina del Cid and friend singing Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey

And I love Bob Dylan’s positive mantra, which is so applicable to selective mutism:

I see my light come shining,
From the west down to the east.
Any day now, any day now,

Reina del Cid and friend (and a very crackly camp fire): Dylan’s I shall be released

Take care out there!


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4 responses to “Selective mutism in teenage. Building self-esteem, with help from Katherine Whitehorn and Reina del Cid”

  1. Emma says:

    Hi Michael hope you are well? This was another interesting read. Look out for th song Mariella by Kate Nash I think you would enjoy it!
    Hopefully we will catch up soon.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Well there’s a lovely surprise!!!!
      Great lyrics. Really powerful, but in general SM is not like that. Still, it’s great that a singer can start to explore childhood and teenage ‘internal life’ in such a powerful way.
      Hope you are well too!!!

  2. simon marley says:

    As ever,very insightful Michael. Many youngsters and their families will benefit from your thoughts and work.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Simon! I spent hours in my room as a teenager. It wasn’t a happy time, but I read loads (NME and Agatha Christie mainly!) and wrote lots of letters and even short stories.
      Next post will be about reality TV and the amazing ‘UP!’ Series

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