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Sound Of Silence

Ido was in 8th grade and the third of five siblings. His parents had a pretty laid-back, hands-off style of parenting. They trusted their children to take responsibility for themselves and didn’t like to inquire too deeply about what was going on with them or interfere. They came to school events and parents’ evenings but weren’t the sort to call up teachers just to check-in. It came as a shock therefore when Ido’s homeroom teacher asked his mother to come in for a meeting where she told her that Ido had completely stopped speaking in school.


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The teacher said that this was not just a case of a quiet or shy child. “Your son seems incapable of speech. I ask him a question, whether in private or in class, and he just stares at me with this strange, frozen, half-smile. And it’s not just me. All the staff tell me they’ve had the same experience with Ido all semester, and I’ve been watching him, he doesn’t speak to the other students either. He doesn’t communicate at all. I thought maybe he has a hearing problem or something, but he follows instructions just fine, he just won’t speak. Is he like this at home?” Ido’s mother shook her head.

“He talks perfectly normally at home. But this has happened before, when Ido was five. It’s been so long though since he got over it I never even thought about it anymore.”

The teacher also added that Ido had recently started skipping classes.

“He seems to be trying to disappear however he can.”

That night, Ido’s mother tried to talk to him about what was going on at school but he just shrugged and said that everything was fine.

“Everything is not fine!” she said.

If you don’t want to talk to me, I’ll make you an appointment with a professional to get this sorted out, just like I did when you were little. I want you to have some freedom and independence but I’m not letting you become a ghost at school. It’s not ok!” Ido made an angry face, swore under his breath, and slammed his way up to his room. The next day, his mother called Kav L’Noar.

In their first sessions, the therapist didn’t even try to get Ido to talk. Instead, he passed a pad of paper back and forth, and they drew pictures of themselves and wrote words in speech bubbles. The therapist was terrible at drawing and Ido laughed a lot at the clumsy stick figures, which helped break the ice. After five sessions, Ido felt comfortable enough to start whispering to the therapist. When his mother heard that, she thought he was almost cured again. But the therapist explained that Ido was experiencing a relapse in his selective mutism, which was a phobia of speaking to specific people, and rooted in anxiety. The therapist said that becoming more comfortable in the therapy room didn’t mean that any of that had gone away, and they needed to find out what lay behind the anxiety and help Ido learn to tackle it. Ido’s mother said,

“Perhaps we’re giving it too much attention? Maybe he just needs to grow out of it?”

The therapist said that in his experience, this was doubtful, and in fact, if left untreated, it was much more likely to get worse.

After a while, the therapist introduced role-play to the sessions. At first, they acted out scenes from Ido’s home life, which could be as mundane as eating dinner or tidying up. With these scenes successfully reenacted, they moved on to life at Ido’s school. Ido immediately froze and reverted to the pad of paper again. The scenes he drew made it clear that he had experienced serious bullying at school, and that nobody knew about it. The therapist asked Ido to write down all the feelings that the Ido in the picture was experiencing at the time. Ido wrote down shame, fear, and helplessness. Then the therapist asked him to circle any of the feelings that he’d written that he continued to experience during regular days in school.

Ido circled all three.

The therapist explained that together they would work on strategies to help Ido return to normal life in school without becoming overwhelmed by these difficult feelings that he’d identified.

Over the next few months, the therapist taught Ido various techniques to help him manage his anxiety. Some were more universal, like slowing down his breathing when he started to feel uncomfortable or reciting the alphabet backward. They role-played dealing with bullies in a range of scenarios. Other techniques involved Ido setting himself incremental challenges to build up his confidence, like approaching someone in school and asking them to tell him the time, which they first enacted in the session and then in real life. The therapist also encouraged Ido’s mother to report the bullying incidents to his school and to demand a plan of action from the principal which would ensure Ido’s safety.

All of this together gradually took effect. Ido got his anxiety under control and his speech slowly returned, first with students that he felt comfortable with, then with his favorite teachers, and finally even with people who made him uncomfortable. After nine months Ido was ready to say goodbye to the therapist.

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