From Joy to Preschool: Selective Mutism
Mother: When Brittni was two years old, her baby sister Jill was born. I remember the first time Brittni saw Jill, at the hospital. She was immediately fascinated by her and seemingly full of instant sisterly love. Jill quickly grew to adore her “big sister”. We were all happy to be a family of four. Trips to the playground or grocery store took a bit more effort now with two little ones in tow, but everything was still quite manageable.
Often when we were out and about, strangers would comment on Brittni’s mane of deep red hair. She would grimace if they approached her to stroke her head. Sometimes I was able to intervene in time, and other times not. Having a sensitive child makes one well aware of the boundaries many adults will cross with children that they wouldn’t consider with adults. It was an early sign of a subtle attitude of non acceptance for the child who doesn’t go along. Some adults seemed put out if Brittni rejected their advances. They viewed her as unfriendly or too fussy, but how would they have liked strangers patting them on the head?
Brittni greatly enjoyed outdoor play, so long as the temperature wasn’t too hot which would cause her porcelain white skin to break out into an itchy rash. Indoors, she colored and drew, played with playdough, cut and taped and glued. She loved anything arts- and -crafty. She also got pleasure out of making Jill laugh, and of finding ways to let Jill in on her fun.
These very early years bring back memories of contentment and joy. Later years do too, but these first precious years are void of the anxiety that would begin to plague Brittni when her world began to expand. For now, she was happy, confident and secure, the buffer of babyhood keeping the amplified world from closing in on her.
Brittni was just shy of three years old when she began preschool. She was my firstborn and like many new mothers, I thought this was an exciting time. I accepted without question the typical path of school for children, and preschool was the proverbial starting line. Looking back, I think my instincts told me she may not have been ready for this; why the rush in starting preschool? I could have simply waited another year, or even two. But I didn’t want to hold her back, or deprive her of whatever it was that preschool had to offer. Or was it simply that I was eager for the starting line- to delight in her new experiences and to have the world reflect back what I already knew- that my child was precious, worthy and good? Wow, if I’d known then what I know now…
After her first day, Brittni’s teacher called to inform me that she had hidden under the table for the first half hour and after being coaxed out, did not utter a word the rest of the morning. This refusal to speak at school went on for weeks, maybe longer. One evening my mother-in-law called to tell me to turn on the television. Dateline was doing a segment on a little girl with Selective Mutism. (Selective Mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.) When is a three or four year old’s temporary defense mechanism considered a disorder? And if it’s considered a disorder, then does this mean that I caused it by thrusting my child into a new and overstimulating-to-her environment too soon? This beautiful child on the Dateline show, like Brittni, was an otherwise healthy child, but easily overwhelmed in new situations. Her parents brought her to a psychiatrist who treated her with Prozac. A four year old on Prozac for using a defense mechanism when overwhelmed? Not my child, I thought. I would deal with this on my own, thank you.
Life went on normally at home. Brittni turned three years old that October of 1993. We had the usual family birthday party, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. By afternoon, our house became a sea of activity, of eating and playing and gift giving. I stood close enough to Brittni during cake time for her to bury her face in my shoulder while the crowd sang happy birthday to her.
In early December, baby Jill, turned one. Brittni delighted in having Jill following her around, walking now, laughing and babbling. I loved being a mother more than I had ever loved anything. Their father and I took great satisfaction in giving our little girls a happy home.
But every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I would experience cognitive dissonance as I brought Brittni to preschool. She no longer cried, and even seemed to go pretty willingly, though she was never excited to go. Her refusal to speak, though it perplexed her teachers and filled me with concern, seemed to be the mechanism that made school tolerable for her. I kept in touch with the school’s director, who did not give off the warmest vibes. I knew my sensitive little girl was detecting any disapproval or annoyance that might be emanating from her.
I was continuously wondering if I should take her out of school and try again when she was a bit older, but because she was going willingly, I kept thinking that perhaps she would become more comfortable there as time went on, and begin speaking. I also wondered though, if the longer she went without talking at school, the more she might fear “making a scene” when she did finally utter a word. One thing I knew was that Brittni hated drawing attention to herself. Ironically, this defense mechanism she had adopted for school is exactly what did bring her attention, and not the positive kind.
Originally published at highlysensitivematerial.com on July 18, 2017.