I had one of those moments every mommy dreads. I took my six year-old son,
Truman, to camp and left him watching me with all the stoicism he could muster.
I don’t think he bought my confident façade, and I caught a glimpse of his
lower lip trembling, thus betraying his own brave veneer.
struggles with a form of social anxiety called Selective Mutism. That
means he finds it nearly impossible to speak to people he doesn’t know. People often confuse SM with shyness,
though they are not the same. One might describe SM as shyness on steroids.
Someone with SM has a true phobia of speaking; s/he does not willfully refuse
to speak. And while people often outgrow shyness, those with SM need treatment
to overcome their anxiety and learn to speak in any environment or
circumstance. As is typical of kids with SM, when Truman is at ease in the
company of family and friends, he speaks, yells, and carries on in all sorts of
silly ways, just as any other child would. In fact, if one were to observe Truman
playing with close friends, you would never guess that the confident, LOUD boy
directing his friends’ play, shouting, “you and I can both play 'kings' and
this whole yard is our kingdom,” cannot bring himself to even whisper when he
is in a less familiar environment or even in his own school classroom. So even
though Truman often gets corrected for yelling too much at his school picnic
tables over lunch, he typically will not say a single word in the classroom to
his teacher or to most of his peers – that is, until recess with his three good
buddies when he lets all of his pent-up speech FLY out of his mouth as if to
say, “I do have a voice! And I will use it! Hear me NOW!” Truman desperately wants to speak freely, telling me, "I always talk in my dreams."
I have always been drawn to psychology, I have spent years thinking about the
causes of my boy’s SM.And I’m
convinced that Truman is experiencing the “perfect storm” of circumstances
which likely contribute to and cause this anxiety.
older brother, Jukie cannot speak.
What must it feel like to live with a big brother who is unable to
talk? Although I expected Truman
to grow up accepting Jukie just as he is, instead Truman regularly asks many
questions about Jukie: “What is Jukie thinking?” “How does Jukie feel when he
wants something and we don’t know what that is?” “Why can’t Jukie talk?” Those
are all questions that I have been answering for years and for which no answers
truly exist. Surely, part of Truman wishes for some of the perceived attention
silent Jukie receives. And perhaps this unconscious competition is what sibling
rivalry looks like in our family.
selective mutism is hard-wired into one’s DNA. Interestingly, many people with
Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome who are able to speak also struggle with SM. Like
his daddy and me, Truman is a carrier of the SLOS mutation. Researchers are
only just beginning to learn ways in which carriers of the syndrome may be
impacted in similar ways to those born with the syndrome. We SLO parents have
often noted that our children who are carriers are almost as similar to each
other’s carrier children as our kids with SLO are to each other.
comes from a long line of anxious people. (Then again, who doesn’t?) Helping my
kids learn to manage their feelings and anxiety is something I have been doing
for fourteen years. By happy chance, I have had plenty of practice in handling
my own anxiety. How fortunate!
so today begins Day One of Camp Courageous, a summer camp designed specifically
for kids with SM. Even though a big part of Truman was excited to attend a fun
summer camp, he had trouble sleeping last night and also told me during our
long drive this morning that his tummy hurt. He said, “maybe it would be better
if I just stayed with you with my head in your lap.” Now this is a heart-melting
request to any Mommy. But I assured him that I knew he could handle the day,
and we walked toward the camp together.
He squeezed my hand extra tightly and paused to look at me before we
entered the room. Neither of us said a word during that five-second pause. And
then Truman stepped through the door, gently pulling me along with him. Saying
goodbye felt a lot like dropping him off on his first day of kindergarten – a
mixture of sadness, fear and excitement – for both child and parent.
of the art of mothering includes knowing when to give a child a gentle push
into a situation that challenges him. I know that Truman needs not only to
overcome his social anxiety, but also to feel the sense of mastery that accompanies
such an accomplishment. I know that I can no longer speak for Truman. I know
that he needs to find his own voice. I know that “protecting” him from this
scary journey would also prevent him from tackling this challenge. And so I
hugged my sweet boy goodbye, saving my few tears until I rounded the
feel Truman’s bravery and confidence transferring to me this morning. If he can
face this daunting week, then I can find the strength to let him go off into
this arena without his Mommy. I excitedly look forward to Truman using his newfound
voice, something I will absolutely never take for granted.