Distress signal;Friday's Child;Parting Shots

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Reva Klein on why a child may resort to silence

Silence is not always golden. It can be as loud and persistent in its own way as an alarm going off, signalling that things are not quite right. Joseph's silence had been going on for so long that his teacher had lost track of when it first began. All she could say was that it was months rather than weeks or days since the boy's voice had been heard.

At first, it was easily overlooked. With so many other things going on in a Year 5 classroom, a quiet nine year-old-boy was the least of her problems. But as time wore on, Joseph's silence became more distinctive, more intense. Although he had never been a major participant, he would previously respond when asked a question. But lately, he only mumbled inaudibly when approached.

There is an odd kind of strengthstubbornessobstinacy in a child who, like Joseph, sticks to his guns. Think back to when you were a child and a friend bet that you couldn't go for 10 minutes without talking. But the thing about a truly headstrong child is that any kind of behaviour he sets his mind to can quickly become habitual, whether it's not talking or refusing to eat vegetables or having to go through elaborate rituals before going to bed. And habits, as we all know, are hard to break after a while.

Joseph's silence was not just habitual. It was the only way he felt he could convey his need for attention. But what drove this need, his teacher couldn't fathom, because he wouldn't talk to her.

It wasn't until parents' evening that she had a chance to speak to Joseph's mother. When it was mentioned that the family was planning to move back to their home country, it all began to click. This wasn't the first time the family had made a major move, and the boy remembered the pain of losing friends and families for what he thought might be forever.

So now, knowing that another move was about to be forced upon him, he had decided to disentangle himself from all relationships and connections in one go. To separate himself in preparation would mean avoiding the heartbreak that he had gone through before. He was leaving and he would say goodbye to everybody emotionally before his physical departure.

There are many reasons why children use silence as a defence or call for help. The child who is constantly criticised at home may withhold speech at school to avoid being told off or corrected. The child who has been teased for having an accent or speech problem may find it a useful strategy. Or the child with a terrible secret to hide or who is undergoing a trauma such as grief may find it easier to keep quiet than to risk letting everything out and exposing themselves or family members to unwanted intrusion.

Whatever the circumstances, it pays to listen to the silence of the child.

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