By Kate Duren
Today I had one of those moments every mommy dreads. I took my 6-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.
Truman 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.”
Since 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 that likely contribute to and cause this anxiety.
Truman’s 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.
Clearly, 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 also have 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.
Truman 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 14 years. By happy chance, I have had plenty of practice in handling my own anxiety. How fortunate!
And 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.
Part 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 also would prevent him from tackling this challenge. And so I hugged my sweet boy goodbye, saving my few tears until I rounded the corner.
I 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.
— Kate Duren is a mother of three who says she is married to “one nearly perfect husband.” She facilitates the New Parent Support Group at Mother & Baby Source in downtown Davis and is also the coordinator of media relations for the Smith-Lemli-Opitz Foundation. She writes a blog titled “Thriving in Holland” about the challenges of parenthood: kateduren.blogspot.com