Dos and Don’ts for Parents of Children with Selective Mutism

Mother and daughter nestling upAt home, your child is rambunctious, verbose, and sometimes even bossy. Then, you leave the house. Your chatty, engaging child becomes mysteriously silent and hides sheepishly behind your leg or freezes when asked simple questions by neighbors, relatives, and friends.

This is a picture of a child experiencing selective mutism—children who speak to certain people in certain situations (most commonly immediate family members inside the home) but are otherwise silent.

For parents of children with selective mutism, life can be frustrating. They are often led down a path of incorrect diagnoses, including autism, language disorders, or oppositional defiant disorder. Some are given no diagnosis at all and are reassured by well-meaning doctors, teachers, family members, and friends that their child is “just shy” and “will grow out of it.”

The reality is that children with selective mutism do not grow out of the anxiety that prevents them from speaking. They are typically diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 6 and, without treatment, spend their childhood and adolescence struggling to answer teachers’ questions, talk to peers, and get help when they are hurt. This can sometimes result in academic underachievement, social isolation, and low self-esteem.

The good news is that effective treatments for selective mutism exist. The first step is an assessment by a qualified psychologist or mental health practitioner. Learning more about the condition can also help improve the quality of life for both the child and parents. To help facilitate that important step, here are 10 dos and don’ts for parents of children with selective mutism:

1. DO Understand That Selective Mutism Is Not a ‘Choice’

When children do not speak despite having language skills at home, it can seem like an act of defiance. Children might act silly, become aggressive, growl, freeze, or appear to simply ignore whoever is speaking to them. It is important for parents to recognize that these behaviors are based in anxiety, not oppositionality.

2. DO Lay off the Questioning

For children with selective mutism, speaking is hard. When you see your child clamming up, lay off the questions. Pushing them to speak will only increase their anxiety and reduce the likelihood that they will be able to talk.

3. DO Describe and Praise Their Behaviors

When you see your child becoming anxious in a speaking situation, you can take the pressure off by simply describing what you see your child doing and praising their efforts to participate in activities, whether verbally or nonverbally.

4. DO Give Your Child Time to Speak

Often, adults ask children questions in a rapid-fire format with little breathing room in between. Children experiencing selective mutism often have a delay before speech, so always wait at least five seconds after you ask a child with selective mutism a question to give them a chance to answer.

5. DO Notice Your Own Reaction to Your Child’s Silence

When a parent sees their child freeze or hide when asked a question, it will likely be that parent’s natural, caring response to speak for the child. This may reduce both a parent and child’s anxiety, but it can also prevent the child from overcoming mutism.

6. DON’T Offer Rewards for Something Your Child Can’t Do

Since mutism is not a choice, but rather an inability to speak driven by anxiety, asking your child to speak in exchange for a reward is like offering your artistic spouse a million dollars to complete a calculus question. It comes from a place of kindness, but is rarely helpful.

7. DON’T Try to Understand the ‘Rules’ of a Child with Selective Mutism

Children with selective mutism may speak to one teacher but not the other, their grandmother but not their grandfather, one of four aunts, and so on. Children with selective mutism divide the world into those people, places, and activities in which they speak and those in which they do not. These boundaries are rigid, and trying to understand the why behind your child’s rules may only cause frustration.

8. DON’T Expect ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’

I applaud those parents who are unwilling to accept that their child should suffer in silence and encourage all parents to persevere in their search for treatment in the face of being repeatedly told, “Your child is just shy.”Courtesies such as please, thank you, hello, and goodbye may be some of the most difficult words a child with selective mutism will learn to say. Unfortunately, they are also the words parents often push for the hardest because they don’t want their child to be perceived as being rude. The reality is that these children are anxious, not rude, and most will grow up to be thoughtful, polite adults.

9. DON’T Criticize Your Child

This one seems obvious, but criticism can hide in seemingly innocuous phrases. “You spoke so well last week. What’s going on this week?” or “Look how your brother is talking, can you try to be like him?” may not sound overtly critical to parents, but are often experienced as critical by children.

10. DON’T Give Up

Many children with selective mutism never receive appropriate treatment. Many parents who seek help for their children report their own struggles with selective mutism throughout their lives. I applaud those parents who are unwilling to accept that their child should suffer in silence and encourage all parents to persevere in their search for treatment in the face of being repeatedly told, “Your child is just shy.”

Acknowledgement: Adapted from the work of Dr. Steven Kurtz.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Selective mutism. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (pp. 195-197) (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Stanley, C. (n.d.). The top ten myths about selective mutism. Selective Mutism Group. Retrieved from http://www.selectivemutism.org/resources/library/SM%20General%20Information/Top%20Ten%20Myths%20about%20SM.pdf

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erika Penner, PhD, RPsych, therapist in Vancouver, British Columbia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • gabriel

    gabriel

    November 3rd, 2015 at 11:26 AM

    Could anyone explain to me how this differs from the child just being shy? Sort of seems like this is the same thing but maybe there is more to this condition than what I understand there to be?

  • Kindra

    Kindra

    November 9th, 2015 at 12:27 AM

    I think the difference is that with truly shy children, they eventually warm up to people after meeting them a few times. Selective mutism seems to be a continuous thing with certain people. Like in the examples, child will talk to grandmother and not the grandfather. Most likely the child’s met them the same amount of time, but just can’t seem to get over some anxiety about talking to one. I used to be terrible at phone calls. I can talk all day to people face to face, but it takes me about 30 mins to an hour to cal someone, even as simple as ordering Chinese. I can barely call my own dad sometimes, but I do have two disorders too, hi polar and borderline personality. Its just not something you can grow out of. You can work really hard on yourself to become successful, like I have, but the anxiety, the doubts, they are always there. Shyness, everyone can be shy, but to be paralyzed at the thought of talking to someone, I can understand that, and it’s not the same as being shy.

  • Bri

    Bri

    April 16th, 2018 at 12:34 PM

    As a teen with SM, it is incredibly different than being shy.
    I physically lose my ability to speak, barely able to even squeak, even when I want to.

  • Audrey

    Audrey

    November 3rd, 2015 at 2:31 PM

    You do have to give any child the opportunity to become familiar with a person or a situation before expecting the to be miss gracious jabberjaws. It isn’t something that comes naturally for a lot of people, the art of conversation, and especially for kids who do have this tendency you are going to have to give them some time to be familiar with their surroundings first. We would want someone to do that for us too right?

  • Rhonda

    Rhonda

    November 4th, 2015 at 5:45 AM

    Well, I think that you have to accept that this is who your child is and you love them despite this. So what if they are not comfortable talking in front of other people? I don’t like it too much either and yet you can still be successful and as you get older you come up with creative ways to get around it.

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    July 26th, 2017 at 4:03 PM

    I am about to take a young client with this issue, I fully expect to make changes with this young person, I will endevour to keep all informed as to my outcome using my therapies. i HAVE SOME AMAZING SUCCESS WITH OLFACTORY AND GUSTORY MALFUNCTION AS i CALLED IT, TWO HAD BOTH, GREAT SUCCESS RATE, Sorry about grammer I work in Mental health and I have only been in 25 mins, now 0012am

  • zoe

    zoe

    November 5th, 2015 at 7:44 AM

    think about how terrible it could make your child feel to think that you do not believe i them or that you think that they are not normal or something. accept them for who they are

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    July 26th, 2017 at 4:08 PM

    Are you presupposing the parents are the ones doing this, I had a client who was told that children should be seen and not hear, an auntie and her husband pulled up in a new car, the child wanted to see inside and say hello to aunt and uncle, but was told not to be rude and the seen and not heard came into it and stuck, Also had a clinet size 32, she over heard a family relative tel her mum, “oooooh wouldant, Susan be a nice lass if she was not so fat, !!!! so you cannot be nice if overweight? come on, but that unconsciously over herd comment from childhood effected most of her life, after my work with her she went down to a size 18 bordering a 16.

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    July 26th, 2017 at 4:20 PM

    why is every one assuming the parents cause this sh$t

  • Rachael

    Rachael

    November 5th, 2015 at 2:27 PM

    I think this is what I suffered with when I was a child. I say I think because I was never diagnosed and like others got told I was shy but when certain people would talk to me I had a overwhelming feeling and it felt like I was frozen and I was so petrified to speak. To speak seemed the hardest thing in the world. My best friend would often have to speak for me I couldn’t even answer the teacher in the register. I would have done anything to be invisible or to dissapear just for that time someone was speaking to me. One of my teachers at school used to shout at me saying why won’t you speak!… Which just made me more scared and anxious to speak as I then believed every time I would talk I would have someone screaming at me so in turn made it worse. I believe this may have happened to me due to my mum becoming unwell. I still get anxious and still now find it hard to talk at times and I’m 29. But I try my best and I hope this has helped someone somewhere understand or just have some insight into what I think I was suffering with

  • riza

    riza

    November 6th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Have you overcome your anxiety? what helped?
    Now that your late 20s, how do you cope in general with work, family, and daily life?

  • Rachael

    Rachael

    November 8th, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    No I have not overcome anxiety but I have never got help for it I just deal with it the best I can. I have had to get better at being more social as I work in a care so I am always needing to talk to people so that has helped me. I just push myself as much as I can depending on how I feel on that day . thanks riza

  • Colton

    Colton

    November 6th, 2015 at 5:51 AM

    I too have always simply assumed that this would be a matter of someone being shy, that they would grow out of it. I guess that’s why I should not make assumptions about things I don’t know anything about.

  • Ruby

    Ruby

    November 6th, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    My eight year old son has selective mutism which is something I just learned a few months ago. I always thought he was just super shy, but now I know that is not the case. Shyness doesn’t last for months or even years. He doesn’t speak at schol, but still “appears” to be content at school, but it is just a facade. He is actually experiences extreme anxiety in the school setting, and it has been affecting him physically with headaches and nausea. The best thing is the parent’s understanding and acceptance of the condition. Then, the school’s understanding. Then, therapy specifically cognitive behavioural therapy is suppose to be very effective. I hope more parents and educators know about the condition so effective treatment can be applied in the child’s early years of schooling.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    January 29th, 2018 at 9:05 PM

    Selective mutism is very hard on your child. My son is 6 but has had such a struggle. I went to Boston and met with a development specialist who tested my son. He suggested a small dose of Zoloft 1mg. In four short days my son came into my room in the morning and said “mom id like pan cakes and make them hot”. This is the first sentence I ever heard him speak. I was almost in tears. Selective mustism is often diagnosed as autism and needs to be tested correctly. I am so blessed that my son speaks 6 years worth of dialogue everyday. His teachers said it was like the light bulb came on. His IEP and report cards are amazing for the first time. I didn’t want to medicate my son but he shines now and has the confidence to speak with his friends and can remember his day in small catagories and tell me. I am so happy I made the leap and opened the door for my son. 1 mg of Zoloft has given him his life back.

  • teddy

    teddy

    November 9th, 2015 at 7:06 AM

    This could be exceptionally difficult for those of us who have these kids who will never stay quiet at home and then you get them around someone that they do not know or even just out in public and they clam up and become someone totally different.

  • shaun

    shaun

    January 17th, 2018 at 9:13 AM

    WHAT THERAPIES HAVE YOU TRIED, IE NLP EFT HYPNOTHERAPY.

  • GURPRET K

    GURPRET K

    July 5th, 2016 at 6:08 AM

    hi I am gurpreet from INDIA , my 10 years old daughter not speck with their teachers in school nd our neighbours but she speak with family members with her brother, me nd their mother. plz help

  • April

    April

    September 19th, 2016 at 10:10 PM

    I’m 27 years old and I just asked my parents about why I didn’t talk when I was young. I recall going to therapists But I never inquired what my diagnosis was. People just said I was shy. My dad just told me tonight that I had/have? Selective mutism. I’ve been reading article after article feeling an array of emotions. For me, i feel better knowing the reason it was so hard for me to make friends in school, why even now- after the 1st or 2nd conversation with someone I panic because I don’t know what to talk About, how long I’m expected to talk. I have really been starting to realize how different I feel from the people that surround me and I knew there Must be something… I was thinking autism or learning delays, but those descriptions never matched how I am. This on the other hand is like reading my whole early elementary years.

  • Uncle

    Uncle

    March 29th, 2017 at 8:33 AM

    I have two elementary school aged nieces that display selective mutism. I say hi to them every time I see them and they never respond. I see them regularly (2 or three times a week) and always say hi and try to start a conversation and it always fails. I am at the point now that I do not want to say hi to them since the effort is fruitless and they seem not interested in talking to their uncle. It gets me angry because I can’t relate to this disorder. It makes no sense to me. What should I do?

  • Jenny

    Jenny

    June 23rd, 2017 at 9:59 AM

    Saying hi, bye, please and thank you are super hard for kids with SM to say. When you see them instead of saying hi, simply say ” it’s great to see you” and comment n
    on hings they are doing like a sportscaster would. This will help take the pressure off speaking and get them more comfortable. Once they are comfortable you could try asking them forced choice questions. ” do you want to play legos, color, or something else”.

  • shaun

    shaun

    January 17th, 2018 at 9:18 AM

    HOW ABOUT YOU TAKE A CHANCE AND WALK PAST THEM, AND SAY OOOOOOOO NOTHING, DONT EVEN LOOK AT THEM, SEE IF YOU CAN GET SOMEONE ELSE TO MONITOR THEIR REACTION. OOps sorry caps.

  • Lilla M.

    Lilla M.

    April 1st, 2017 at 2:16 PM

    Hi im 20 years old and ive had selective mutism all my life i struggale through everything like talking to family, friends, my boyfriend, his family, customers and staff and my boyfriend wants to help me get better to communicate and to get confidence but i duno how he can help me.

  • James

    James

    July 4th, 2017 at 8:20 AM

    Our child actually has this. It’s not about taking time to warm up, it’s about the kid being unable to speak due to paralyzing anxiety. For example she can do every skill in karate except the shout. If she were lost in a store she she could not tell somebody my phone number. She reads at a high level, but her teacher didn’t know she could read at all because she couldn’t read out loud at school. If a stranger approached her in the park she is physically inable to shout and/or run, her body and voice freeze up. So it’s not just about accepting kids for who they are – because of course I love who she is. It’s about helping them be able to cope in the world and live fulfilling lives.

  • Audrey

    Audrey

    July 5th, 2017 at 1:19 PM

    James,
    I think my nine year old daughter may have selective mutism. I am having a hard time finding at-home solutions . What are you doing to help your child cope? Any good websites? Thank you!

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    July 26th, 2017 at 4:22 PM

    u thought about using Hypnosis and NLP With EFT ????

  • James

    James

    July 26th, 2017 at 8:58 PM

    Hi Audrey – yep the Child Mind Institute has great info online. My kid is getting much better. We’ve gone to some intensive programs as well.

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    September 30th, 2017 at 1:34 PM

    Hope u r doing ok, try NLP with

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    July 26th, 2017 at 4:24 PM

    HI JAMES WHERE DO YOU LIVE, EVER USED EFT – NLP – HYPNOTHERAPY

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    September 30th, 2017 at 1:36 PM

    So sad I feel NLP could help, time line Therapy good luck.

  • shaun

    shaun

    January 17th, 2018 at 9:21 AM

    Hi James, sad is this, I and my sons are all black belts, I believe at some time in her life she has had a scare that causes this, have you tried NLP, EFT or Hypnotherapy with her. I prefer to call this selective silence, les clinical, my youngest was similar as a child, his big brother spoke for him at times. I do believe it very fixable, are you UK or USA??

  • Liz

    Liz

    August 24th, 2017 at 6:48 AM

    Good article. There are proven therapies that work to help children learn how to manage their extreme verbal anxiety. This is through cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy. Check out the Child Mind Institute’s website on SM and you can see videos and read up on how best to help children that suffer from this. They do not just outgrow it. They are no just stubborn and shy. My child told me “the words get stuck in my throat and I can’t get them out”. With proper therapy, these kids can learn to work and talk despite the anxiety.

  • Lilla M

    Lilla M

    September 30th, 2017 at 6:24 AM

    What therapy could help me as i have selective mutism?

  • Shaun

    Shaun

    September 30th, 2017 at 1:32 PM

    NLP EFT & Future pace and time line Therapy,
    bodymindandspirit.co.uk
    Where u live, could work video call on Facebook PM.
    Stay well u can over come this.
    Shaun 2ZKa

  • Don

    Don

    January 15th, 2018 at 8:27 AM

    My wife and I recently was told our granddaughters age 7 and 8 have selective Mutism we knew something was going on and now we know and can help and learn more about this. This is my first post and look forward to more.

  • shaun

    shaun

    January 17th, 2018 at 9:12 AM

    I am looking to do some work with this problem, using NLP Hypnotherapy and EFT. JUST NEED TO GET THE CLIENTS. STAY WELL

  • Chelsea

    Chelsea

    August 7th, 2018 at 3:35 AM

    I’m trying to decide if this is my child. She is 4 and is usually quite when around non immediate family. However it’s worse when we try and make her do something she doesn’t want to do e.g. eat her tea with her fork. She gets really angry and just won’t talk til we’ve left her alone for 10 mins or so. Do you think that behaviour is related to SM or is it just a case of her trying to be independent?

  • ActuallySelectivelyMute

    ActuallySelectivelyMute

    January 21st, 2019 at 8:29 AM

    #3 is horrible advice. As a selective mute, the thought of a person bringing attention to my actions is horrifying. It’s bad enough to intuitively know that people are watching you (and being SM brings even more unwanted attention), but to have it CONFIRMED by someone describing your behavior in detail is a nightmare. We just want to be invisible.

  • Claudia

    Claudia

    March 26th, 2019 at 8:59 AM

    I know I too wanted to be invisible. Sometimes I still do and I’m 65 years old now! I remember my mom pointing out my “frozen position” to people and saying, “She does this all the time when I ask her to say please or thank you!” She was so frustrated with me!

  • Claudia

    Claudia

    March 26th, 2019 at 8:57 AM

    THANK YOU!! I was just telling someone about what happened to me as a child where I would “freeze up” when asked to say “thank you” for a piece of candy, for example. I remember my brain telling me I COULD say it, and then my mom would be pleased, but I just COULDN’T. Something stopped me from doing this simple thing…usually when a friend of my Mom’s gave me a piece of candy and I didn’t know the person. Your article described me to a “T” and this disorder (SO happy it has a name!), followed me through my entire grade school and high school life. I never knew WHY I was always afraid of my own peers. People would make fun of me, and I would always walk looking at the ground instead of at the people around me. I eventually grew out of it as an adult, but STILL find myself wanting to “FREEZE!” every now and then. SO SO SO relieved that the mystery for me has finally been solved! :-)

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