My Child Won’t Talk

Q: My four-year-old daughter is starting kindergarten now, and I’m very concerned about a problem she had last year in nursery: She barely spoke to any classmates or teachers! (She did whisper when there was something important that she needed.) My husband said that I shouldn’t worry because he was extremely shy when he was a child, but I feel that there must be more that I can do to help her. Can you provide any guidance?

A: The most common expression of anxiety in a preschool child is that of selective mutism, the degree of which varies in each given circumstance. Some children will only speak to their teachers in school, some only to their peers; some will sing but not speak, etc.

It is quite difficult for parents to mask their discomfort with this behavior, but it is of paramount importance not to exhibit disappointment or anxiety about this issue. As always, anxiety breeds anxiety, and a parent needs to internalize the realistic belief that the child will eventually speak more openly in class. And parents must certainly refrain from bringing up the topic to the child’s teacher when they pick up the preschooler at the end of the day.

What a parent can do is attempt to work around the problem, rather than speaking about it openly. For example, a parent can reward a child for davening in school, stressing how it makes Hashem so happy. (You can say, “You sound just like your tatte,” not focusing on the issue of not hearing his voice). If the child is self-conscious about davening in school, he or she can daven at home and be taped, and then bring the recording to school. (A parent first needs to ask the child’s permission to do the recording, and then ask afterwards if it’s okay to bring the tape to school.)

It’s often helpful to have the child invite a classmate over after school to play. This can open up a conversation that will continue the next day in school. Or a child could visit her teacher in her home on Shabbos, perhaps together with her siblings, with whom she speaks, to help open up that possibility of communication.

Having the child’s class birthday party at home (with her permission, of course) can assist the process of decreasing her anxiety with classmates.

Sometimes a teacher can use a microphone and go around the room, giving the children who want an opportunity to speak into it. A “borderline” selective mute might be caught off-guard and accept the offer; hearing her voice on the microphone can be helpful.

When a child does speak, a fuss should not be made — the child does not want to be the center of attention. (Incidentally, his classmates will do the job for you! They will be quite enthusiastic to hear their classmate’s voice and excitedly tell the teacher.)

As selective mutism is connected to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, a parent needs to work on this child’s feelings of competency and self-esteem and help him feel secure about the world around him. Some selectively mute children are perfectionists and would rather not speak at all than say something silly or incorrect. In such a circumstance, one needs to work on the child’s issues of never being able to make a mistake in order to give him the confidence to risk making a mistake one day in the classroom.

Other children might fear their bellowing Rebbi’s voice, or internalize problems that are occurring at home and feel more frightened in class. A parent needs to spend moments of “being silly” together with his child to allow the child to see that even adults can take life lightly at times.

Acceptance of the child during this temporary stage in life and not broadcasting the selective mutism as a public announcement are of great importance. If asked, a parent needs to say, “She’ll speak when she’s ready. Thanks.”