More Than Shy: Why Your Child Might Be Struggling With Selective Mutism

Shy child hiding behind pillow, representing selective mutism.

When does your child speak the most?

Do they only speak to certain people? Are they comfortable speaking at home, but not in public? At school, do their teachers comment on how little they participate in class discussions?

Does it seem like when they’re expected to speak, they don’t speak at all?

Selective Mutism is more complex than shyness alone. Let’s examine the condition so you can see if it fits your child’s behavior.

What Selective Mutism Communicates

Children with selective mutism are not “just shy.” They are only capable of speaking in certain situations or with certain people (at home or with a loved one). In other situations, they remain silent and cannot be persuaded to speak.

According to child psychologist Dr. Kristen Eastman, PsyD:

“Shy kids may not volunteer to read aloud to the class, but when they need to do things, they can…The main difference is that shy children can still navigate everyday tasks, whereas children with selective mutism cannot.”

Misdiagnosis for selective mutism is common, so let’s break down its core qualities:

  • Boys and girls can be affected, with the average onset of selective mutism being under age 5. The condition usually becomes noticeable once children are enrolled in preschool or kindergarten.
  • Not speaking affects your child’s ability to make friends, do certain tasks in school (like oral presentations), or participate in sports or extracurriculars.
  • This difficulty in speaking lasts at least a month. The first month of school is not included in this evaluation to rule out back-to-school awkwardness.
  • Your child has no problems speaking the language they are being prompted to speak. Selective mutism can typically be ruled out if a child struggles to speak a language that is not their first, but will freely speak in their native language.
  • Your child’s silence cannot be attributed to separate conditions like autism.
  • Your child resorts to pointing, nodding, writing, or whispering to a trusted individual to communicate.
  • If left unaddressed, selective mutism can carry into adulthood, and the same difficulties will be present.

The distinction between selective mutism and other anxious conditions is that the expectation to speak puts a kind of performative pressure on a child that they feel overwhelmed by.

Only being able to speak to a relative, or when they feel safe at home, will limit a child’s ability to make friends and participate in social activities. Modern technology can also make it easier for children to isolate themselves, which can exacerbate the problem over time.

Selective mutism is more than apprehension; it is a flat refusal to verbally communicate. It’s similar to how a person with a phobia will avoid the object of their fears at any cost, even their well-being.

Luckily, selective mutism can be treated. Here’s how:

Treatments for Selective Mutism

Because selective mutism is a fear-based inhibition, the treatments for it look similar to anxiety treatment. At its core, selective mutism is a form of acute, situational social anxiety.

The avoidant behavior of only speaking to certain people will get worse if it’s reinforced, so the key to treatment is to have your child combat the tendency to not speak in a gentle, systematic way.

  • Exposure Response Therapy: This would involve slowly introducing your child to situations that they aren’t comfortable speaking in. They could do this with a safe person at first, and then new people can be added over time.
  • Shaping: This is rewarding your child for their attempts to speak in uncomfortable situations. Even if they only manage to say a single word or speak in a whisper, this would be praised, and they would continue being encouraged to speak in any situation.
  • Self Modeling: This is the method of having parents take video or audio recordings of their child when they are speaking freely in a comfortable situation. These clips can then be used to encourage their child to speak in situations they are having trouble in. Seeing themselves speak serves to remind them that they can, and this helps foster belief in their abilities. 

According to The Selective Mutism Association

“It is best not to outright demand or force a child with SM to speak; rather it is necessary to help your child in a systematic way to communicate more successfully.”

Overcoming Selective Mutism involves a child slowly stepping beyond their fears and realizing that if you can speak to one person, you can speak to any.

Selective Mutism, Shyness, and The Root Cause

In essence, selective mutism, and all forms of shyness, stem from a fear of being seen.

Speaking means that people can evaluate you. They can see what you think and what you know and how you feel. It can make a child (or an adult) feel tremendously vulnerable to express themselves to people they don’t know.

That’s why it’s essential that a child learns that it’s okay to be seen, and even for other people to judge them sometimes. Those fears cannot affect an individual if they accept themselves on a basic level.

Having a fully formed sense of self is not possible for a developing child, but what should be fostered from a young age is resilience, the ability to adapt to scary situations, and inherent self-worth. These traits will grow as they prove to themselves that new people and new situations don’t have to stop them from expressing themselves.

This ability to push themselves to communicate will result in richer relationships, more life experiences, more confidence, more self-esteem, and a greater sense of control and self-belief in all their endeavors. They won’t have to rely on loved ones to do their speaking for them, and they will be able to thrive on their own.

Instead of reinforcing avoidant social behavior, parents should work to guide their children toward what makes them uncomfortable. In doing so, children will find that they had nothing to fear to begin with.