I will admit... I remember telling children "Say Trick-or Treat or you don't get candy" before encouraging them to say "Thank you" for the delicious treat. This was before I learned about Selective Mutism.
Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder that causes children, teens, and adults who have it to be unable to speak in certain situations such as at school, at the store, or... you got it... while trick-or-treating. Have you heard about the 4 F's in response to stress: flight-fight-freeze-fawn? Perhaps you haven't heard of the latter two. We'll talk about "fawn" another time. But what about "freeze?" In a stressful state, many people have a natural reaction not to fight or flee, but to feel as if they are cemented in one place. Their minds go blank, or perhaps their minds are rushing thoughts around at a million miles a minute, yet they are frozen. They cannot move. Now imagine this happening to your mouth. This is what happens to individuals with SM. While they want to engage with others, and may be able to do so physically, they find it difficult to speak. In elementary school, this might look like a child playing with her peers at recess but not speaking to them. In adolescence, this might look like a teen staring blankly at his teacher when asked a question in front of the class. In adulthood, this might look like someone who doesn’t talk to anyone at work and often doesn’t attend social gatherings. SM isn’t shyness, though that is often how it is explained to others by those who don’t know how to explain it any other way. SM is an anxiety disorder that causes the mouths of those who have it to “freeze,” unable to speak.
This Halloween, please keep in mind that the child or teen who extends their hand for a treat but does not verbalize anything, may be a child who wants to say “Thank you” but is frozen. Coaxing them to speak (no matter how sweet and calm or how direct and demanding your approach) will not help but is likely to make them more anxious and thus, even less likely to speak. Instead, flash a smile and tell them “Happy Halloween” while passing out goodies.
Thank you for making Halloween fun for everyone!