April 30, 2024

Leigh and Pierre Part 1 of 3: When your Kid Doesn’t Want to Talk

This is part one of a three-part series with parents Leigh and Pierre. Leigh is from the US and Pierre is from France, and they moved their family from France to the states one year ago.

They have two children – almost 5 yr old Jean  and 2 year old Nina. However, they came to Leslie to talk  about Jean who is not speaking outside of her immediate family.  Over time, Leigh and Pierre have heard the diagnosis “selective mutism” and have made changes accordingly, but they’re still struggling with what they should do. In this episode Leslie walks Leigh and Pierre through an assessment of why a child might be selectively speaking. While there are lots of causes, they mostly boil down to vulnerability. Is Jean stressing about her learning two languages at once? Struggling with perfectionism?  Or Is she not feeling safe when she’s out in the world? We ask these questions and many more in this session.

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.

Time Stamps

  • Selective Mutism
  • Parents explain how they’re reacting to their child’s struggles
  • When parents can relate to their  struggles – is there a  genetic component
  • Developing an avoidant behavior: the child speaks when they feel safe
  • Confidence, safety, willingness: 3 important things, without them child is left feeling vulnerable
  • Talk about what perfectionism looks like in kids and adults. Perfectionism and its relationship to anxiety
  • Practice being vulnerable – the problem with avoiding or suppressing those uncomfortable emotions. Some kids gravitate to only wanting to experience the pleasant emotions
  • Practice learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation
  • Indirect ways to support:
    • Letting child use nonverbal and indirect communication (and validating it)
    • When you’re with other people, practice talking (not to them, but around them)
    • Tell them “can you give yourself practice making a mistake”


Leslie-ism: All What is the loud and clear message you may be sending to your child.


[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

0:02  Leigh:  I’m doing this all wrong. I’m interacting with her in all the ways maybe I shouldn’t be; that are, sort of, ingraining this type of behavior and not focusing on what’s underneath that, which is fear and anxiety.

0:22  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And this is: Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast, where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That quote resonates for me so much, because, as parents, we do try our best. And we have more to learn. Today we meet Leigh and Pierre, parents who came to me because they know they can do better, but don’t quite know how. They have a toddler, Nina, and an almost-five-year-old, Jean. Jean is a chatty child at home. But once she’s in public, she shuts down and won’t say a word, which feels very out of character and confusing to her parents. When you feel confused by your child’s behavior, and it doesn’t make sense, that’s a strong indication to look below the surface, assess the bigger picture, and try to understand the origins of the behavior. 

And that’s exactly what we do in this session. I’ve spoken in previous episodes about the unintentional mistakes I made with my children. All parents do. And it’s important that once we realize we’re making it worse, instead of better, we need to change our strategies. But the truth is, we often miss the unintentional mistakes we’re making when we’re making them. But Leigh and Pierre are the lucky ones, because they have an opportunity to make a positive change right now. And you get to hear how they’re doing it. 

And now as a reminder, all the names and identifying information has been changed. And this show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s begin.

Leslie:  Hi, Pierre. Hi, Leigh.. How are you guys doing?

2:42  Pierre:  Good, good. How are you?

2:44  Leslie:  Good. I’m glad to have you here today. And I know you have some concerns. So I’m going to let you get started.

2:51  Leigh:  Yeah, so we came to you because our daughter, Jean, has not been speaking to people that are new in her life. We recently moved a year ago. So we’re in a new place. And I’ve noticed that even people that we see regularly—neighbors, people that we see at the library on a weekly basis—there was, like, a deep fear and anxiety about talking to…anyone, really. She’ll only speak with people that she knows—other family members or close friends that she’s known since she was a baby. And since then, just last week—she started pre-K back in September—we had a bit of an emergency with our youngest child. And that catapulted Jean into having to do a sleepover at a friend’s house from school. And the next day she spoke for the first time at school. 

Leslie:  Wow. 

Leigh:  Yeah. So that was very exciting. All in this emotional roller coaster of a little bit of a medical emergency, which is all good now. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she talked the next day.I think it definitely…she went over for the sleepover and spoke to both of the parents that night, which she had never done before. She was speaking to the friend outside of school, but not in school. And the next day, she spoke to the friend in school and spoke to the teacher, all at the same time. 

4:31  Leslie:  Wow, that is such a relief…

4:33  Pierre:  But she’s still not talking to the neighbors. 

4:37  Leslie:  She’s still not talking to the neighbors. Okay. So we’re going to understand what’s going on. Has anyone labeled her behavior as selective mutism? Have you heard that term? Have you not heard that term? Yes, you’re shaking your head. Okay. 

4:54  Pierre:  Actually, we had a call with the Child Development Services because after three weeks in school they noticed she was not talking at all. And so they propose that we start a discussion with the CDS chat room and services to see what… 

Leigh:  …to do some evaluations. 

Pierre:  Yeah, to do some evaluation and determine what kind of support they could provide. So that’s when it was brought up as well. So yes, the term has been, we’ve been familiar with it. And from what we’ve read, it seems to really fit the bill.

5:26  Leslie:  Okay, so we have a diagnosis, you know what it is. But let’s go back a little bit and get a little more history, if you would. When did it actually start? Because you said she just started pre-K. But was she in another kind of preschool before that?

5:43  Pierre:  So, we moved from a non-English speaking country to the US. And back then, she was at a childcare, but like, at home—someone’s home care. And once in a while they would go to some kind of playground for their kids. And we had feedback at that point that she was not really engaging at that playground, with the other kids. And she was a lot on the side watching. Not really engaging. 

6:15  Leigh:  So whenever the daycare provider would take them outside of the house and go meet up with other daycare providers, normally it was an inside enclosed setting, she was very uncomfortable, and would be very clingy, and not want to engage at all. And that was as young as two. And I didn’t notice that as much. But yeah, at the time, she mentioned it quite a few times that every time they were in a new environment, specifically inside with new people, she was physically attached to her and did not want to engage with other kids or people.

6:56  Leslie:  Okay, so you heard caregivers describe this, as early as two you noticed it. It sounds like it became a little more pronounced this year when she went to this pre-K. And it sounds like the timing is such that she moved—you guys moved—and she started this new school. Is it true that she’s bilingual?

7:19  Pierre:  Yes, she’s speaking both languages.

7:22  Leslie:  She’s speaking both ways.

7:23  Pierre:  Very well. But you’re right, we really noticed that something was going on when we moved, because at first she would not speak in English to other kids, or other people. And it took two or three months until she would start speaking English within the family circle. But she continued not speaking English to anyone else. And the kids that she had started to interact in a silent mode, she kept interacting in the silent mode. 

7:49  Leslie:  Interesting. So it took her a little while. What were you doing at home when you moved? Were you talking in English? Or maybe you’d speak two languages to her? Is that what you do?

8:01  Pierre:  Yeah, we stick to…we both speak our mother tongue to her and it’s been consistent since the beginning.

8:09  Leslie:  Okay, so when she was speaking to you, Leigh, she still did…when you moved she spoke English, because she’s used to that. Is that correct?

8:17  Leigh:  I’ve always spoken to her in English and she would respond to me in French. And that changed last October, a year ago, exactly. She started speaking back to me in English. 

8:34  Leslie:  All right. So, right now we understand where she’s speaking, where she’s not speaking, who she’s speaking to. What else can you tell me about her?

8:44  Pierre:  So, she loves to be outside. She’s never happier than outside in the woods, on the beach, really anywhere that’s nature. She really loves it. She brightens up. She’s very skilled in her own physical balance. She started to bike without any wheels a year ago. So, she was, like, three.

9:08  Leslie:  Three years old and biking. Wow. 

9:12  Pierre:  Yeah, yeah. She loves books. She loves stories.

9:14  Leigh:  She’s very creative, very deep in her independent play, can be on her own for a while and is…

Pierre:  …obsessive.

Leigh:  …can be, definitely.

9:28  Pierre:  Can be obsessive about stuff. 

9:31  Leigh:  Yeah,  it’s very…the last year we’ve been in obsession around…It’s like, she loves dogs. So, she loves leashes and she loves knots and tying things and tying anything she can onto something that looks like a leash. She’s turned anything that is a rope in our house into some kind of leash form.

9:52  Leslie:  Isn’t that cute? Okay, so she’s going to be an expert on knots before she’s six years old. [Laughter] Okay, and you have a little one at home. She’s how old, the little one? 

Leigh:  Nina is two. 

Leslie:  Two. Okay. And how do they get along?

10:12   Pierre:  Very well. But, you obviously have the little kids fighting over stuff, but they’ve been sleeping in the same room for the last year, and they love it. They both go outside, play together, play with their blocks and their stuff. So overall, pretty good. But then obviously, you have, occasionally, fights over ownership of stuff. And then the other one is, sometimes a little bit of a dominating, I guess, or like a leader in play. Yeah. And I would say 80% of the time that works out okay. But sometimes this rebellion from Nina and that doesn’t go over very well. 

11:00  Leslie:  Excellent. Okay. Sounds all like they’re growing little kids. Beautiful. Okay, let’s go back to the idea that there’s time that she’s not speaking. You get a call from the school, three weeks have gone by, you see it yourself. You heard about it when she was little, and she was at a daycare, but probably didn’t think much about that. That just sounds like, alright, not everybody is outgoing all the time. That’s fine. 

But are you nervous about it? Is it raising your anxiety, raising your stress? Or are you comfortable with it? So I guess I’m asking you to explain how, as parents—and you’re two different people—how, as parents, you’re reacting to what’s going on. Because then we’ll talk about what we do about it and, and why there was a switch after the incident, where she had to sleep over. But what about how you react to it?

11:57  Leigh:  I think it’s been evolving for me for many months now. Because I really noticed something was, it was not just a shyness back in the winter, last year. And I mentioned it to her pediatrician. And she said, let’s wait until pre-K. And while I was waiting, I’m Googling and wondering, maybe something’s happening that’s more than just not wanting to talk. And when I found selective mutism, it checks so many boxes from what I was seeing, and it also really ticked off, “Oh, gosh, I am doing this all wrong.” I’m interacting with her in all the ways maybe I shouldn’t be that are, sort of, ingraining this type of behavior, like focusing on the talking and not focusing on what’s underneath that, which is fear and anxiety. 

And for me, I’ve been very frustrated that she won’t speak, especially with people that we see every week. I’ve said a lot of things to her, like, “Why wouldn’t you just talk to Maddie, you see her all the time, she’s right there.” Just like, “Let’s just try to say hi today or try to say hello,” are really trying to push her with the talking. And now I’m moving more into how I can support her right now to feel more comfortable in situations where she’s not ready to be verbal. And also to recognize all the ways that she communicates non-verbally, which I think are really incredible, that I never noticed before. Like, she looks people in the eyes, which is a huge step when you have a lot of social anxiety. That she will nod yes or no. And when people are, “What’s your age, what’s your age?” and I’ll say you can show them on your hands. And those are all exciting ways she can feel confident.

13:55  Leslie:  Oh my goodness, you don’t need me. [Laughter] But I do want to jump in and just say: Wow, in the beginning when you don’t know what’s going on with your child…right? We know that raising kids is: we don’t always know what’s going on. And you didn’t understand what was going on. And you didn’t have any bad intentions. 

But if we don’t understand what’s going on with our child, we can make things worse. We can feel horrible, ourselves. You were worried, you were like, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with her? Is this a bigger problem? Is this going to tell me something about her future?” And you got your own research—you did your own research. And once you got that, you flipped it on its head. You went from, “What’s wrong with you?” to, “What can I do to help you feel more comfortable?”… to understand how to communicate, and we’re going to talk about some of those strategies but I’m like, “Oh, you got it. You don’t need me—you’re on the right track.”

14:53  Leigh:  We need you, still. [Laughter]

14:57  Leslie:  That wasn’t a bait. I do you want to really reinforce that it’s totally understandable that parents can be very anxious themselves, and frustrated and confused. And it sounded like you were all three of those things. Things are starting to shift, you got more information, which is helpful. And we’ll keep going with that. Beautiful. All right, Pierre, your turn, what’s it been like for you?

15:21  Pierre:  I guess at the beginning, I didn’t really think much of it. Because I remember to some extent, growing up being a little shy and not being super excited to be put on the spot or having to talk to anyone. I mean, I bit a doctor or two, so just really like anyone checking on me. So I could relate to her, how she would feel not wanting to engage. So I was like, this is it, and it would go away eventually. So it’s a control thing, because I went back home recently, and I talked about this to some people and they were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. She’s going to come around,” which now I know, is not entirely true. But this is where I’m coming from. 

And then when Leigh started to point it out to me more, and raising concerns, I was like, “Alright, maybe there’s something. And let’s look into it.” And then, I guess, I started by talking to her, asking her why she would not want to talk to people. What was going on? And obviously, she couldn’t tell us. She’d say, “No, thanks.” I guess I tried different things. I didn’t feel anxious. Or…I was just feeling bad for her, more than anything. And feeling I didn’t know how to make her comfortable, and relating and at the same time feeling a little bit sad that she felt this way.

16:54  Leslie:  For a parent to recognize, “Oh, I relate to that. I was similar. I was shy,” or, “I remember not wanting to talk.” Did you actually say you bit a doctor? 

Pierre:  Mmm hmm.

Leslie:  Okay, see? That nonverbal as a way to communicate, “Give me some space, I don’t want you too near me.” And I assume you don’t bite people now. Right? 

Pierre:  So far, so good. 

Leslie:  Okay, good. So yes, the idea is that you can relate to her. Because you, and that’s the first question we want to ask is, Hey, could this be genetic? Is there some family history on either side? I didn’t even have to ask you guys a question—you just shared that. So yes, there’s some genetic component, you could understand…but you do feel sad for her. 

You see your own little child, we think she’s struggling. That’s questionable. Is she struggling? Or is she choosing to be comfortable by not talking? Is she taking care of herself by not talking? Out here, we’re the only ones saying, “Oh, my God, there’s something wrong, you should be talking.” But if she’s in her silent little world, I don’t know that she’s that uncomfortable. 

Maybe it’s hard for her to describe it, because she’s only doing what she knows is going to work for her. So she goes to school, and she stays quiet. And she watches, she observes—it sounds like she’s still engaged. Which is a great thing. That’s a question we need to find out: is she withdrawn as well as silent? Or is she engaged and quiet? 

18:27  Pierre:  From what we’ve been told, she’s engaging,

18:28  Leigh:  And she comes home with a lot of information. 

Pierre:  Yeah.

18:33   Leslie:  Beautiful. great way to know that, okay, she’s engaged, indeed. So this idea that there’s something wrong is really a comparison to other people..right? It’s because you’re not talking. And at the same time, you’re rightly…there is anxiety, there is fear. And the bottom line is she talks when she feels safe to talk. Selective mutism is really saying, “I don’t know that I feel safe talking to those people.” And the longer I don’t talk, the more anxious I get about talking. That’s an important thing to think about. 

So you’re in this conundrum. You’re in a dilemma here. Do I make her talk? That’s not going to work? You can’t force it out. You’ve tried that—you can’t force her. But the longer it goes, the worse it can get because her anxiety is actually increasing. It’s an avoidant behavior. And when we avoid something, the anxiety—as we know from research—the anxiety actually tends to get bigger.

[Music: Flowerpot by Olexy]

Leslie:  So, let’s solve the mystery. And you’re right. It wasn’t a coincidence that she slept over at her friend’s house. And then the next day she went in and spoke to teachers or spoke at school. So, what do you think is going on there?

20:09  Pierre:  A real mystery to me, to be fair.

20:11  Leigh:  It’s a little bit of a mystery to me. I also think part of the component is that we weren’t anywhere around. Oftentimes on playdates, I’ll be hanging out somewhere nearby, or if we’re with neighbors, I’m always like, a hop, skip, and a jump away. And one time, I only say this because one time we were outside, and this was back when I was kind of pushing for her to talk. And she said, “Mom, I will talk, but you can’t be here.” 

Leslie:  Wow. 

Leigh:  And that stuck with me. Like, maybe she really does need space or to feel, I don’t know, maybe she feels the pressure from me, that she needs to speak.

21:07  Leslie:  Well, that’s a theory but doesn’t work perfectly, because: you’re not at school with her. 

Leigh:  Yeah, that’s true. 

Leslie:  You gave her plenty of space. And she’s not talking. So that is interesting. And I think the idea that you were not with her at the sleepover with her friend and with the other parents, that might be a factor. And so it still feels like a mystery to you guys, which: I get it. It’s hard to understand. What I would jump in and say is that you had no choice. She had to stay there because you are attending to your other daughter. And so when she was there, the fact that you sent her there sent a loud and clear message, unspoken, but a loud and clear message, “You’re going here to be safe, so we can make sure your sister’s safe.” 

So in a way, your message of sending her off and putting her out there was an exposure that you said, “We believe you’re safe—go spend the night here.” That’s another factor that we might want to consider. Because one of the things with selective mutism that—besides one of the mistakes that parents push children to talk, which doesn’t work—is the other idea is that we enable them, we speak for them. 

And that’s very natural. Someone says, “How old are you?” And she’s not saying anything. You say, “Oh, my daughter’s three years old,” or something like that. So I want to say it’s enabling. But I also want to say it’s extremely normal and sometimes very necessary to answer for your daughter. So we’re not going to say that’s right or wrong. We’re just going to say, yeah, when we speak for our child, it’s enabling. 

You describe something earlier, where she now has some nonverbal language. There are things she can do nonverbally by nodding her head, raising her three fingers. And you even said, it gives her confidence. Bingo: that’s what we want to do. And that’s what I believe happened when she slept over at her friend’s house. She, all of a sudden, out of necessity, probably needed to talk to those parents. And maybe they did it nonchalantly, I don’t know. Because I think if they pressured her to talk, she might have felt more scared. They probably nonchalantly said, “We’re going to have dinner—you guys ready?” Maybe they didn’t put pressure…and baby Jean just started talking. 

We don’t exactly know what happened. We can ask the parents, but it was out of necessity. It was an exposure to just do it. “My mom and dad gave me the okay that I’m safe, because they sent me here.” And then talking to their parents and being away from you guys in that way. She just walked out of there with this confidence, her shoulders up. And she went to school and probably felt, “I can talk”… a confidence, a safety and a willingness. That’s a lot to ask in every situation. Three really important things that are not always available all the time, because when she doesn’t have those three things, she’s feeling vulnerable, anxious and vulnerable. Have you seen her feeling anxious and vulnerable? 

24:19  Pierre:  Yeah, and I’m just thinking of another example, which is not related to talking. Okay, we go to soccer on Saturday mornings, and it’s outside in an open field. It’s not very strict or regimented, or everybody’s with their parents. She will not go—she barely will go on the field and kick the ball or anything. Even if we stay on the side, even if we’re not part of the team or anything. She’s, “No, not going to do what you want me to do.”

24:52  Leslie:  Okay, so I’m throwing one more thing in: definitely, vulnerability. But one way of looking at that vulnerability, believe it or not, and help me out here: Is she a bit self-conscious? I have a granddaughter who I once gave the cutest little sweater. It was a big, puffy sweater. And when she first saw it, she was like, oh, she was so excited. And then when she saw our reaction, because there were four other adults there, and we all went, “Oh, that’s so gorgeous, that’s so cute.” Then she pushed it back at me and said, “I don’t want it.” 

It was a big flip. And it was the idea that she was going to get noticed, in this really cute sweatshirt. And people might notice her. And for a sensitive child it’s like, “I don’t want to be noticed. That’s not going to make me feel comfortable. That doesn’t make me feel safe to be noticed.” Does that ever happen with Jean?

25:49   Pierre:  I wouldn’t say. It’s hard to tell.

25:52  Leigh:  I think she’s comfortable putting herself out there in certain ways. And what I do see maybe is some perfectionism, desire that, if she can’t do it just right, she doesn’t want to do it.

26:09   Pierre:  Also I would say if we ask her to demonstrate something that she knows she can do… But if we ask her to demonstrate it to someone else, the chances that she will not do it are pretty high. She’s not going to want to showcase herself. She would wait until everybody’s passed on… 

Leigh:  Yeah. 

Pierre:  …moved on to something else, and then she will do it.

26:30   Leslie:  So this is the idea of being at soccer and going out there and showcasing herself, like you just said, or putting herself out there. And what if she makes a mistake? And maybe she is trying to be the perfect child in your eyes. Does she ever say, I’m sure she’s too young to say this but, I wonder if she ever feels like she’s disappointing you.

26:53  Pierre:  No. I don’t think she has the sense of what that would mean. She’s pushing back on us. She can be pretty…she has tantrums and doesn’t handle frustration very well. And all of that stuff.

27:09  Leslie:  That can go with perfectionism. And every child with selective mutism—and it’s not that uncommon, by the way, every child that does—might have some slightly different version of it. So some children fear that they’re going to make a mistake. Being bilingual, if I were in her shoes, I’d say, “Well, what if I say the wrong word?” Being bilingual is like, “What if I make a mistake and say it incorrectly?” So this perfectionism might be feeding some of that selective mutism. Because she wants to say it right, be right, really look good, so to speak, and do it well.

27:50  Leigh:  Yeah, I think I sense that there is a bit of that, both from the skill that she has speaking in French and also the ease that she has speaking, I mean, in both languages, truly. But even one time she mentioned to me, she was like, “Keep talking, so I can make sure I can say those words.” She really wants to be able to execute things correctly. 

28:17  Leslie:  Are either of you perfectionist? Oh, Leigh raises her hand. Okay, Leigh. Besides now, when did you recognize that? That pressure, you lived with that pressure, was it early on?

28:34  Leigh:  I think I’ve…yeah, I think I’ve always noticed it since a very young age. It’s always been in there.

28:42  Leslie:  And have you ever put together the piece that perfectionism is a form of anxiety? 

Leigh:  No. That would make sense. [Laughter]

Leslie:  Okay, and why do you think I’m putting those two things together? What is it about perfectionism that actually relates to anxiety? 

29:03  Leigh:  Maybe…

Pierre:  I have an idea. 

Leigh:  Go for it.

29:04  Pierre:  Perfection is not reachable. So you will always be in a state of imperfectionism. And there’s going to be a gap between what you think you want to achieve and then where you actually are, because this is the way it is. So you would never be where you think you should be, or something like that. As well as you think you should do it. 

Leigh:  Yeah.

29:26  Leslie:  And the result of that is, “I feel anxious if I can’t close that gap if I can’t be what I think I should be like, then I’m in a constant state.” Well said, Pierre. “Yeah, I’m in a constant state of anxiety trying to get there.” And you might have a Mini Me with Jean, who’s trying, and we are born this way, right? We are just born with the sensitivity. She was born with the possibility of shyness. And she may be born with this desire to do things well. Perfectionism is just a very high expectation of doing things well. Nothing wrong with that, except that it’s painful to try to live like that. 

All right. So what do we do with this beautiful, sensitive child? Let’s get back to: you’re trying to help her with selective mutism. So I want to hear if you have a big picture of this problem. I don’t even know if I want to call it a problem…characteristic of what’s going on; this problem for her this or problem for us, as opposed to her. 

30:34  Pierre:  Well, personally, I don’t have a big picture right now. It’s more like, little steps for now, that we don’t want to aggravate it or make it worse for her. So really, right now, we’re not mentioning it to her anymore at all. And then we’re glad to hear when she’s talking to other people. And we’re noticing, but we’re not really mentioning… 

Leigh:  …not asking.

Pierre:  We’re not asking her.

Leigh:  We’re not, “Did you talk at school today?” 

Pierre:  And sometimes she would bring it up. She’s like, “Oh, do you know who I talked to at school today?” 

31:06  Leigh:  I do wonder how we can…She has recently said, “Mom, something wonderful happened at school today, I spoke to so-and-so.” And I hesitate with my response. Because I want to be excited, and I also don’t want to put too much pressure on it. 

31:24  Leslie:  We don’t want to make it about us. So, we don’t want to say, “I’m so proud of you.” We do want to be excited. But here’s my trick, I want to turn it back to her and say, “I think you’re excited. You look like you’re excited about that.” And then when she’s excited, I can be excited for her. And so that’s a really good way of showing your enthusiasm, but you’re recognizing, “It sounds like you’re really excited about that.” 

And then, you know, “Wow, was that tricky? Was that easy for you? Was that hard?” Don’t always ask questions around it. But maybe once in a blue moon, you can ask an extra question of, “Wow, was that challenging? And are you proud of yourself? What did you do to make that work?” Or little things like that, if you want to explore it. I love your idea: we do not need to bring a lot of attention to this. We do not. So, the big picture is: we’re going to have faith that she’s going to outgrow this and grow with it. When I say outgrow it, she’s probably going to be able to order food for herself and talk to professors or teachers or whatever it is. 

On the other hand, her sensitivity, her desire to do well, and maybe perfectionism—those things probably won’t go away. She’s going to grow with that. So, as parents, it may not be this, but we’re going to start to focus on: How do we help a child who’s sensitive, who needs practice at being vulnerable, but having faith that she gets to be herself, and she’s going to work through this? And there are things that can make it worse, as you said, and things that can make it better. So, definitely want to put a star next to: we don’t need to focus on it. And we need to build little steps. So let’s talk a little bit more about the other little steps. 

33:16  Pierre:  And just a comment on practice of being vulnerable. I think, one, both of us, we may have a hard time being vulnerable, although we’re working on it. And two, she’s getting every month a little kids book. And there’s always a page with different emotions where you can pick which one you are. And she always picks the happy one, no matter what. Every time we get there, she’s like, “I’m the happy one.” No matter what, which is crazy. 


33:46  Leslie:  Kids want to be happy. They don’t want those uncomfortable feelings. So, we don’t all feel our feelings the same way. Just like we don’t all feel physical pain. So, out of my three children. If they all got a papercut, one kid wouldn’t stop playing, the other one would say, “Mommy, I got a papercut,” and the other one would think it was the end of the world. That was their different sensitivity to physical pain. Well, emotional pain is no different. Children will respond differently. 

And Pierre, you said that you might both be uncomfortable with vulnerability, right? And so the first thing I’m going to say is: okay, there’s the genetics again. And one of the best ways to help our children is to model it. They will imitate us, and we won’t see the immediate results of that. But if you’re modeling vulnerability, like, “Wow, I’m going to go up and ask that person if I can use their bathroom even though we’re not going to this restaurant,” putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. And you verbalize it as you do it. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. Or you come back from doing it and say, “Wow, that was a little uncomfortable. But I did it.” 

So, just sort of modeling it, putting yourself out there, showing that you can be vulnerable, and not making the happy face after. But saying, “That was really uncomfortable, and I did it anyway.” I love the line, “Learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.” So that is practicing being vulnerable: “I’m going to put myself in a vulnerable situation, an uncomfortable situation. And I’m going to practice handling that.” Anxious people think, “I need to get rid of this feeling in order to be okay. Or I need to get rid of this uncomfortable feeling in order to do what I want to do.” So one of the things we can teach her as one of our little steps is, “Can you be uncomfortable, and kick that soccer ball? Can you give that person your drink, when you’re done with it?” Think about subtle things that make her uncomfortable, and just say, “Hey, this might make you uncomfortable. That’s so cool if you can do it and be uncomfortable.” 

So, it’s a lifelong practice of exposure to being vulnerable. And this is when you want to start practicing because it will make such a difference. If you give her ten years, thirteen years, eighteen years of practice. If you start now, can you imagine what she’s going to be like at twenty two? She’s going to say, “Oh, I’m going to be uncomfortable and do it anyway.” It’s gonna roll off her tongue as if she’s grown up with this third language called Emotional Intelligence. 

36:31  Pierre:  Yeah. Wish I’d started at four. [Laughter]

36:32  Leigh:  I think that is how we feel right now: she won’t be biting doctors when she’s nine or something. But we are in a place right now where we can support her and help her navigate. 

36:50   Pierre:  I mean, most of my life, in social environments, I’m uncomfortable. So I’m learning to live with it. But I’m very uncomfortable.

36:58  Leslie:  Okay.

36:59  Pierre:  Leigh cannot relate as much. Because I mean, we had that conversation. So I’m not putting words in her mouth. But we had that conversation. And she could not relate as much because she’s a lot more social. And I’m not very much. And you know, I went over it over the years, but when I see her, it really rings a bell in me about how I feel, or…

37:27  Leigh:  …kind of painful for you. Like, at soccer when she…

37:31  Pierre:  I mean, it’s both painful and I understand it. It’s both ways.

37:35   Leslie:  Well, could be painful, because you know that feeling, and it brings that feeling back up. So at your age, you’re still—as you admitted—you’re still uncomfortable in social situations. We do have skills to help with some of that stuff. And they’re beautiful DBT skills–Dialectic Behavior Therapy skills—cognitive behavior therapy skills, that you can start teaching her. 

But Leigh, you did say something about, “Yeah, she won’t be nine, biting a doctor,” I don’t know about that. At twenty two, I expect something different. But we need to have a long term picture of giving her time, lots and lots of time, to learn these skills, to practice these skills and to live life. But I think already you get the idea that not focusing on it directly is a much better idea than focusing on it directly. 

And there are many indirect ways, I just want to name a few more. That you’re letting her use nonverbal. You’re letting her use her fingers or nod her head or shrug her shoulders—you’re letting her do that. Are there things that you can do, some other ideas, is that when you are with your friends that she knows well, you can talk to her about, “Oh, did you see the puppy that just walked by?” Don’t make it about other people so that she’s practicing talking in the context of other people, not necessarily to the other people, but in the environment of those other people. So she’s used to hearing her voice, maybe on some level understanding that she is using the language, she might make a mistake, but it’s okay. One line that I used to use with my daughter all the time is: “Can you give yourself practice making a mistake?” 

These are all different ideas for giving her a chance to use her voice but maybe not to ask someone a question or maybe not for her to talk to someone. And it is okay for her to talk to you and say, “Mommy, can you ask her if I can have a cookie?” or something. Instead of saying, “Nope, you have to ask for yourself.” And say that’s a form of communication. It’s indirect but she communicated and right now that’s a great step. So indirect communication, nonverbal communication, these are all steps, and then just communicating about other things in the context, so that she’s talking to you in public, at other places and things like that. But I really want to…I love the idea of you building her confidence in other ways, so that it rubs off and she goes to school. 

40:26  Pierre:  And just to clarify, because there was a time where—if she was asking Leigh or me something, because she didn’t want to ask someone directly—there was a time I was like, “No, because you need to ask to get it.” And I thought maybe that was going to motivate her. And now I don’t do this anymore. And I help her out. And if she asks me, then I go and ask that person. Yeah, so that’s more what to do right. 

40:55  Leslie:  Right now, yes, we will. And we will change with baby steps, the exposures. So that, yes, sometimes the indirect communication, the nonverbal, that’s not where we want her to end up. We want her to be able to sing in public or say anything she wants, or talk anywhere she wants. But right now, this is the step, the progression of getting her to feel safe. 

And so when you are doing that, you are making her feel safe, when you go up to the other person she communicates to you. And then you go up and say, “Yes, she’d like a cookie,” or whatever, then she’s feeling safe. She needs both safety and practice at being vulnerable. It’s not easy. Those are two opposites, right? It’s a dialectic of, we want to make her feel safe, and we want her to practice being vulnerable. So slowly, but surely, see it in steps. And right now, I want you to just take some of these ideas, and practice them, then then we’ll meet back up again. 

Pierre:  Sounds great. 

42:00  Leigh:  Sounds good. Thanks, Leslie. 

Pierre:  Thank you.

[Music: A Walk in the Forest by Olexy]

42:21  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  As I told Lieigh and Pierre early on, they don’t need me. It’s so wonderful to hear about parents trying something and when it doesn’t work, doing more research and trying something else. While we mean well, it’s very possible that some attempts of parenting may do more harm than good. In these instances, it’s important to forgive yourself and try something new. 

By changing our approach as parents, we can create a fertile environment that makes change possible for our children. Leigh and Pierre accepted who Jean is, which eased their own tension around getting her to speak. How beautiful. 

Next week, Leigh and Pierre come to me with concerns about Jean’s desire to be in control, and we explore how she’s using that to manage her own discomfort. 

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcast so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend. You can find a full transcript of this episode, or sign up for my newsletter at ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury and Mia Warren. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, keep in mind: What is the loud and clear message you may be sending to your child?

Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury

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