My daughter is 16 years old and she was diagnosed with selective mutism while in primary school. Her primary school was very supportive and worked with a professional speech therapist who visited the school to follow a programme to help our daughter through her mutism. She made great progress, but still struggled with making friends and was quite isolated in her class.
She is now in fourth year in secondary school and is still struggling to make friends. While she can now speak more freely and gets on fine with her teachers, who have also been understanding of her difficulties, she is still isolated. There are days when she goes to school and probably talks to nobody all day. She has attempted to join a couple of friend groups, but usually feels like a spare wheel and feels some in the group don’t want her there.
Obviously, the Covid pandemic has compounded the problem, as socialisation was restricted for so long and illness in our family necessitated use of masks for longer for my daughter than for others in school. However, she is no longer wearing a mask to school. She does have one friend outside of school who she can meet up with occasionally, which is great, but they are not in school together unfortunately. I would be grateful for any advice to try to help my daughter make friends at school. Many thanks.
[ ‘Mum, I’m so lonely at school. Nobody speaks to me all day’ ]
Children who are selectively mute in primary school tend to grow up as quieter and more introverted teenagers and young adults. This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. While quieter people might have a smaller group of friends, they can form more loyal and deeper friendships. In her interesting book, Quiet, Susan Cain challenges the way society overvalues confidence, extroversion and popularity, when it is the quieter and more thoughtful people who can be happier and make greater impacts in society – and even be better leaders.
Of course, being quieter can have its drawbacks, especially when you are trying to make friends as a teenager in school, and it can lead to social anxiety and stress. While quieter people can form loyal and deep friendships, it is the reaching out and making friends in the first place that is the hard part. As you say in your question, your daughter has also had the added challenge of getting through the Covid-19 crisis, which has caused teenagers to miss out on the normal milestones of socialising. This has had a negative impact on teenage mental health and confidence, and particularly affected young people who already had some social anxiety or a history of being selectively mute, for instance.
Focus on individual friendships
Trying to join an established group of female friends in secondary school is an enormous challenge, even for a confident extrovert. By their very nature, these groups can be quite exclusionary and may not be interested in admitting new members. For this reason it usually best to focus on making connections with individual friends. Try with your daughter to identify potential classmates who she might have something in common with and who are in need of friendship. Teachers might be able to subtly help by pairing her with particular classmates on projects that might require meeting up outside of school etc. If your daughter is in transition year, there might be work experience or social and community projects where she could partner with another classmate.
[ ‘My 12-year-old son is struggling in secondary school’ ]
[ ‘How can I help my teenage daughter accept that having a chronic illness is part of her life?’ ]
[ ‘Our son has severe social anxiety, but my husband and I don’t seem to be on the same page’ ]
Focus on shared interests
Rather than aiming to join a particular group of friends, a good approach is to join a group around a shared passion or interest. What extracurricular activities does the school have that might interest your daughter? As lunchtime is the hardest period for children without a group of friends, a good school usually arranges inclusive lunchtime activities such as a music or reading group, or even a debating society. Contact the year head and see what is possible in your daughter’s school. Having a place to go during breaks where conversation is structured around activities will make things a lot easier.
Helping your daughter
The fact that your daughter was able to make progress in primary school with a speech and language therapist is a strength. It shows she was able to learn and put social strategies into action. You will be able to build upon this now as you help her. Listen to her as she talks about school, and discuss what the challenges are and what she wants to happen. You can be her ally as you brainstorm solutions with her. If she is open to it, you could also consider taking her to a counsellor or therapist to help her manage these social situations.
The important message to give her is that there is nothing wrong with her and that she is one of the many quieter people who take time to “find their tribe”.
It is also important to be very patient. Many children don’t find their ultimate friendship group in school, given how restricted the school environment can be, and it is through their outside interests or when they go to college, where they find their passions, that they begin to socially thrive. Also, situations can change quite quickly. As they move into the senior cycle, teenagers tend to mature and dynamics of friend groups can become less intense and more inclusive. This might make it easier for your daughter.
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- John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie