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Talking to the child about speech anxiety – ‘the pep talk’


Acknowledge the child’s fear of speaking.

Let them know that you understand their difficulty and the feelings they experience when they try to speak. You know they want to and have tried to speak, but they feel so worried about talking that they tighten up and feel frozen – the words seem to get stuck in their throat.

The language you use and the detail you give will depend on their age, but even very young children benefit from having their problem acknowledged rather than ignored, ‘hushed-up’ or misinterpreted.

Let the child know they are not alone.

Younger children need to know that there are plenty of other lovely children who find talking hard at first. For older children (just as for adults) it can be especially reassuring to be told that their condition has a name (selective mutism) and that other children their age have got through it. A calm, informed approach will inspire co

Take the pressure off talking so that the child can relax, participate, enjoy and learn in all settings. Emphasise that there are lots of other ways to join in and have fun. Impress on the child that the most important thing is for them to be happy and relaxed. Tell the child that there is no rush and they can speak when they feel ready. Let them know that they have a friend in you to turn to, if they are feeling upset.

Explain that talking will get easier.

It is essential that the child sees themselves as a person who will talk at some time in the future and knows that you have confidence in them. Tell them you know they are not ready to talk yet but it will not always be like this; it will get easier and they will get braver. Emphasise that they only have to do things they can manage; and that by starting with things they find easy, they will gradually be able to do more and more until, one day, talking is really easy too. Even children as young as three years old can see the logic of this approach.


* Focus on what children can do rather than can’t. Foster their individual skills, talents and interests so that they have plenty to feel good about. Ask children to show you and others how to play an instrument, care for their pets, use technology, contribute to a magazine – anything that shows you value them as a whole person and that there’s more to life than talking.

Physical exercise is good for mind, body and soul and helps to keep anxiety at bay. Start each day with a plan that includes physical activity-whether this is letting off steam after school for younger children, or sweeping up leaves, Tai Chi or walking the dog for older children. Build family outings and school trips around physical challenges which can do so much to boost children’s confidence while proving that it is possible to conquer fears through sheer determination.

It’s achievement that builds confidence rather than praise; confidence then enables us to accept praise. Under-confident children are therefore often uncomfortable with praise, but need frequent acknowledgement that they are doing well to build self-esteem, persistence and motivation. So ensure success by setting realistic targets and structuring or adapting tasks to the child’s capabilities; then smile and describe what the child has achieved.

Children with SM become acutely aware that they are different to other children and do not want this emphasised, so unless children are very young, acknowledge their

achievements around talking and being brave in private, rather than in public. In contrast, make sure they receive plenty of praise in public for behaviour that is encouraged and valued in all children.

Recognise courage or bravery when children do something they initially resist, and reward appropriately with a hug, sticker, special treat, congratulations or verbal acknowledgement. There is a danger of ignoring or dismissing bravery if it seems that the child was being ridiculous to worry in the first place, especially if the situation leaves adults feeling irritated or guilty rather than sympathetic. However, it is important to replace the child’s panic, resentment, exhaustion or residual anxiety with pleasant feelings as soon as possible. This is how children learn the name for courage and become less resistant next time; they have a right to feel proud of themselves when they are brave.

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