At 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.
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.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Selective mutism. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (pp. 195-197) (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- 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
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