Parent visitor day at school- I woke up feeling excited for a day off of work and a day to see my twins in their respective preschool classrooms! I walked in to Katie’s classroom, waved to Katie and said, “Hi!” but she looked at me like a deer in headlights. “She’s nervous,” I thought to myself. “It’s okay,” I reassured myself. “I will calm her down,” I thought. I took her over to her favorite area of the classroom, the dramatic play area, to help her feel comfortable. Nobody else was around, and I tried again. I whispered this time, “Hi, Katie.” Instead of acknowledging me, she looked like she was scared to death- of me. Her mommy. Her protector. She looked like a child after being with an abusive captor: blank, expressionless, and dead on the inside. I wanted to shake her, let her know it was me, and let her know that she was safe.
A few minutes later, the children sat down for circle time. Katie was seated in the circle next to the teacher’s left side. The teacher started the circle-time question on her other side, so Katie would go last. (This was a great intervention, so Katie could hear the other children and mimic them if her mind went blank from anxiety when her turn came around). The question was, “What animal do you like best?” Every child answered the question. When it was Katie’s turn, she looked at the ground. I couldn’t even tell if she was breathing. “Dogs,” I thought. “You like dogs. Just say it. It’s okay. It’s safe here. You like Dogs. Dogs! Please talk! PLEASE. God, please help her say it,” I pleaded in my head, and my anxiety spiked.
The teacher gave ample wait-time and then offered a forced-choice question: “Katie, do you like cats or dogs better?” This was her chance. She was going to say it. I could feel it….She could do it…Instead, she nodded. I let out my breath that I didn’t even know I was holding. I smiled at Katie for reassurance that she did a “good job,” and then I excused myself to go to the bathroom- where I sobbed more intensely than I had ever cried before. As a clinician, I knew what I was seeing. I knew it was selective mutism and social anxiety disorder comborbidly together. The teachers had described it to me on the phone, but I didn’t comprehend the full extent until this very moment… and I had never in my life been more scared as I was in that moment. Believe me, I had seen her frozen expression, the mute behaviors in other environments, but this…this was worse than I had ever imagined.