Friends at School

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.

Shy Children: Help for Shyness in ADHD Children
Shy Children: Help for Shyness in ADHD Children

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.

[Free Resource: Great Activities for Kids with ADHD]

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.

[Social Skills 101]

  • 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.

1 Related Link

  1. Story of Selective Mutism – My son born in 2004 – didn’t speak until age 7 – Never assume your child is “just shy” – they are trapped inside their minds and they need help. Don’t let grandparents or doctors tell you the child is being defiant or trying to “get his way”. He is shouting inside. He wants to talk. He can’t if he has Selective Mutism. It is very real. My son is now a 13 yr old 7th grader and talks so much we interrupt each other! BUT… At age 4 a brave pre-school teacher HINTED to us that we should talk to a doctor about our son because she had never heard his voice all school year. Teachers, by law, are not allowed to “diagnose” children so they are often caught between a child who needs help and parents who have no idea there is a problem. We are not stupid or unloving parents…you see, our son was an average boy who laughed, jumped, talked and played just like his older brother and 3 older cousins and every other kid we knew. But at school he was silenced by his severe anxiety that we knew nothing about. It was like stage fright that lasted all day at school. but as soon as he got into our car he talked and talked. Finally, after calling over 50 counseling offices (literally) to find a pediatric counselor (either they were booked or didn’t take children under age 14) we found a doctor who was cold and rude to me – the worried mother – and said “do you think he has Selective Mutism? I said “NO!” I didn’t know what it was and he didn’t explain it to me. I went home and looked it up. And cried and cried and then for about a year I researched it and we looked for another counselor who would help our son to speak outside the safety of his family of just me, his dad and his brother. He wouldn’t speak to his grandparents or uncles or our neighbors. He wouldn’t even smile. He would nod or shake his head or whisper to me. He would run and play but he looked scared and we were devastated that this was his life forever. After a long time of listening to his new counselor (she wouldn’t take insurance so it drained us financially but we were desperate) and medication (anti anxiety meds starting at age 5) – He finally talked to his friend Joe on the school bus at age 7 for the first time. He was so excited. The next day he talked to 10 kids. and the 3rd day he talked to his teacher. (one sentence) Her goal was to have him talk before the end of the school year before she retired. He had done it and she hugged him (not allowed in public schools so she apologized to me but I told her it was perfectly okay and appropriate!) It was a slow process but eventually he said “Happy Birthday” to his grandfather (first words my father heard him speak – age 7) There is no cure for Selective Mutism. My son still has Anxiety Attacks – they are horrible. But he understands that they are temporary and he will be okay. And he talks freely about SM and is proud that he has overcome so much. His friends know about it and give him space when necessary. Most of the time life is pretty great! AdD, Anxiety, Selective Mutism…parts of my son…just like his brown eyes and freckles on his nose. Love him and hug him everyday.

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