Signs of Selective Mutism: When It Isn’t Just “Shyness”
A day in the life of Selective Mutism
The lady at the cash register smiles at your daughter. You think to yourself, “please don’t try to talk to her. Please just scan the next item.” But all your internal pleading falls on deaf ears.
“What’s your name sweetie?” the checker asks in your daughter’s direction.
Your daughter stares at the lady with big brown eyes. She blinks once, she blinks twice. There is a visual stare down that seems to last forever. And then there is the awkward silence that always follows. You’ve been here before. Maybe not in line 3 at the local grocery store, but yes, you know exactly how this is going to play out before it even begins.
The cashier will experience the awkward silence.
She will have a sick awareness that something is wrong.
Perhaps she’ll think your child is delayed, on the spectrum, hearing impaired or worse – disrespectful.
On a good day, she’ll glance in your direction and give you a sympathetic smile.
On a bad day, she’ll scowl at you with judgmental eyes.
Today was a good day. You got a “sympathetic look” and moved on.
As you place the groceries into the car your daughter is talking up a storm. She is safe now. Out of earshot of any listening ears.
Your daughter is not shy.
Your daughter is not rude.
Your daughter has Selective Mutism.
Selective Mutism can be overwhelming not only for the child but for the family as well.
Signs of Selective Mutism can show up subtly when kids are very young.
Perhaps you had a toddler who hid behind you when you talked to others or hid their face when people spoke to them.
You might’ve chocked it up to “shyness” and for most toddlers, you’d probably be right.
But then you may have noticed something weird. Whenever your child was around other people they became unnervingly silent. I mean no sounds. Eerily quiet.
Maybe at first, you thought your child was just uncomfortable in new situations or around people they didn’t know.
Maybe you started to feel like your child was rude, and grew embarrassed by her refusal to say thank you and please.
Perhaps it was only in kindergarten that you really started to put the pieces together. After all, it was mid-year and your child had yet to speak to their teacher or peers.
Maybe your child found one special friend who she was able to share her thoughts with, one soft whisper at a time. A friend who became her lifeline and translator to the outside world around her.
Perhaps whispers began and rumbles of “what’s wrong with her” started to emerge.
But she looked like your run of the mill, free-spirited child at home. You stared at her playing in the backyard, laughing and singing with her brother.
Why couldn’t she be like that anywhere else?
Selective Mutism can debilitate kids and puzzle parents.
Many parents will tell themselves…
She’s just shy.
She’s just overwhelmed.
She’ll grow out of it.
She’ll be fine when she is a bit older.
Unfortunately, Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder and it knows no age limit.
Do you worry your child has Selective Mutism? A child may have Selective Mutism if:
[this is not meant to be used to diagnose and is written for informational purposes only. Seek out the guidance of a mental health professional if you are concerned about your child having Selective Mutism].
-They consistently do not speak in certain situations where they are expected to speak [like school], even though there is nothing wrong with their ability to communicate or their understanding of the English language.
-The issue has been happening for over a month and it is beyond a reaction to just new situations (i.e. beginning of school etc.).
How is Selective Mutism Treated?
The earlier kids get treatment for Selective Mutism, the better. Left untreated, this anxiety disorder can get much worse and can impact all areas of a child’s life.
Selective Mutism is treated through cognitive behavioral therapy. It is important to work with someone who understands the disorder and the treatment approaches that are the most effective.
Here is a helpful video from the Child Mind Institute on Selective Mutism:
As parents, you can help or hurt the situation.
Don’t shame your children for not talking.
Having Selective Mutism can be extremely frustrating and overwhelming for the child. No one wants to feel like they can’t talk to people. Kids with this disorder often beat themselves up about it and don’t need any additional help in that area!
Let your child know about the condition. Demystifying this issue can help your child feel less alone and reduce self-blame.
There are many great books on this topic that are written for children. Here are just a few:
Don’t put your child on the spot.
Kids with this disorder don’t do well under pressure. Putting them on the spot to talk to others will most likely backfire. The more a child experiences negative situations around talking, the bigger their anxiety and fear will grow.
Slow and steady wins the race. You want your child to feel success, not failure. Putting them on the spot will most likely end in failure.
Set up one-on-one interaction.
Kids with Selective Mutism are much less likely to talk when there are too many people around. Their anxiety will create irrational rules in their brain:
I can’t talk to adults
I can’t talk to kids
I can talk to her, but no one else
Typically, if a child with Selective Mutism starts talking to you, they’ve broken their “rule” and can, therefore, continue talking to you. Kids will tell me that once someone hears their voice, their anxiety around talking to that person dissipates. Getting them to that point, however, can be an uphill battle.
As a parent, you can stack the deck in your favor by orchestrating ongoing contact with an outside adult or child to interact with your child one-on-one. This will foster a relationship and will give your child an opportunity to practice the skills they might be learning in therapy.
Be creative with communication.
Just because your child has Selective Mutism, doesn’t mean they can’t have a relationship with relatives outside the home.
Many parents I’ve worked with are heartbroken that their child won’t talk to extended family. You can help with this by recording an audio or video message from your child. Many kids are comfortable creating messages for extended family to be listened to later.
As you progress through therapy, your child might get comfortable with you playing the message in front of the relative or friend. At times this can help them overcome the anxiety of talking in front of that person.
Get yourself support.
Having a child with Selective Mutism can feel very isolating. You are not alone. Find support and guidance. Below are some places to start:
Selective Mutism Support Groups by State
List of Selective Mutism Support Groups
Selective Mutism Association Facebook Page
Do you have a child with Selective Mutism? What suggestions can you offer other parents in the same situation? What worked best for you? Do you know someone who can benefit from hearing about this disorder? Share this article with them.
Other Articles on Selective Mutism:
Common Myths of Selective Mutism
Other Books on Selective Mutism:
Parenting E-Courses on Anxiety/OCD:
This site is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the guidance of a qualified professional. This page may contain affiliate links. I receive a small commission for items purchased. I would never endorse any product I didn't recommend. Click here for my full disclosure statement.