When the Words Just Won’t Come Out
Often children with ADHD lack the social know-how required to make friends. Learn how to conducting practice sessions, trying visual imagery, and encouraging deep breathing can help.
Reviewed on May 4, 2018
Many children with ADHD and learning disabilities are chatterboxes, keeping their mouths moving as fast as their hyperactive bodies. Other kids with ADHD barely speak at all, especially outside of the home. Parents ask me, “Why won’t he talk to people?” Often, it’s because of extreme shyness.
Being unable to get words out in certain situations, a learning disability known as selective mutism, can be a cause of embarrassment — for children as well as their parents. Selective mutism also makes it hard for children to show what they know in school, and hampers their ability to make and keep friends.
This was the situation with Sue (not her real name), a happy four-year-old who loved to play with dolls. Sue had always been considered shy, but her language skills seemed fine. Then came prekindergarten; she was so anxious in the classroom that she found it hard to communicate with her teachers or classmates (though she was her usual talkative self at home). Thanks to her teachers’ patience, along with some cognitive-behavioral techniques, Sue gradually became able to speak at school — first in a whisper and eventually in a normal voice.
Selective mutism affects children of all ages (as well as some adults). Recently, I spoke with a couple of older kids with ADHD who hated to speak up at school. One child, a high-schooler whose teachers considered her a “low participator,” explained the problem this way: “By the time I think about what I want to say, the other kids have moved on to another topic.” The other child, a sixth grader, said simply, “It’s just too hard to follow the conversation.” These students were so distressed that they stopped raising their hands in class. They didn’t want to risk the embarrassment of being tongue-tied in front of their peers.
Some timid children will do almost anything to avoid social situations in which they might have to speak. One child confessed to me that he was afraid to eat in the lunchroom. Why? Because he was worried that someone would sit down beside him and initiate a conversation. “I’ll sound stupid,” he said. So he started spending his lunch period in the library.
What’s the best way to help such a child? Reassurance, certainly. But reassurance alone may not solve the problem. Here’s what will:
- Talk with your child about the situations that cause anxiety. Some children find big groups difficult. For others, it’s talking to an adult that proves terrifying. The more you know about the specific situations that cause difficulty for your child, the easier it will be for you to help solve the problem.
- Acknowledge the anxiety, and devise a plan for easing it. For example, you might tell your child, “If you want to leave at any point, squeeze my hand twice and we will go into the bathroom until you feel ready.”
- Suggest phrases your child can use to “buy time” before speaking. These might include: “Let me have a minute to think about that,” or “Please come back to me with that question,” or “I’m not sure.”
- Conduct practice sessions. Set up low-stress situations to give your child opportunities to practice speaking. One possibility would be to have your child rehearse a funny story and then encourage her to tell it at dinner with relatives. Once they get over the initial reluctance to speak, many shy kids find that they enjoy telling jokes and being the center of attention.
- Be a role model. Children tend to mimic the behavior of grownups. If you say “please” and “thank you” at every opportunity, your child will learn to do the same. The words will seem natural and become easy to say.
- Encourage deep breathing. Explain to your child that anxiety is associated with shallow breathing, and that breathing deeply is a good way to relax. If you notice that your child is anxious, you might say, “I can see that you are becoming upset. How about joining me in taking a few deep breaths?”
- Have your child try visual imagery. In this technique, a child who is fearful about an upcoming event or situation closes her eyes and imagines herself at the event feeling calm and having no trouble speaking. Envisioning herself as a confident speaker will help her become a confident speaker.
- Let your child know he’s not alone. He should know that other children experience the same problem, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Give him a book or two that address the problem (see list, above right). Parents, too, may wish to do a little reading. Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children, by Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D., is especially good.
It takes time and effort to develop these self-calming “tools.” But children who make the effort are often able to overcome their shyness and learn to speak comfortably in most situations.