How Parents Can Help Their Selectively Mute Children Become ‘Brave Talkers’

On "Nightline," ABC's Juju Chang profiled child psychologist Dr. Steven Kurtz and a program he developed at the Child Mind Institute for kids suffering from "selective mutism" - an extreme anxiety disorder often combined with social phobia.

While the week-long "boot camp" helps these quiet children overcome their anxieties, Kurtz said part of the therapy session is also to re-train parents to ignore their protective instincts to spare their child a painful silence.

Kurtz  recommended these tips for parents with selectively mute children, but said this advice could help any parent improve communication with their child.

1. DO wait five seconds before you repeat a question, ask a different question or try to rescue.

"The five seconds allows the child to discover experientially that anxiety doesn't kill you," Kurtz said. "They need to learn from experience, not from somebody telling them, that it's just a false alarm. The five seconds allows them to experience it, with- and finding out experientially that they don't die, and that they're not going to be rescued prematurely."

2. DO give "labeled" praise for brave talking.

"It doesn't scare kids to have a positive focus on their coping," Kurtz said.

As an example, Kurtz said if you were to ask your child if it is sunny or cloudy outside and they respond correctly, praise them for that particular response.

"'Good participating! It is cloudy. Thank you for sharing that…' and I've just done a labeled praise for [his or her] brave talking," Kurtz said.

3. DO validate or affirm what they say when they are speaking.

"That way you get into, I know, that you know, that I know, that you know that you talk," Kurtz said.

4. DO NOT ask yes or no questions.

"You ask yes/no questions, people quickly learn to nod, or point, or gesture," Kurtz said. "When you simply change from yes/no questions to what we call a force-choice question: 'Do you want a cup or a cone,' or an open-ended question: 'What flavor do you want?' that you increase the chance of a child verbally responding four or five fold."


Get more tips on the Child Mind Institute's website for selective mutism HERE.

Find more information about the "Brave Buddies" program on their website HERE.