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November 29, 2021

Selective Mutism: Is Your Child Just Shy, Or Is It Something More?

Selective Mutism vs ‘Just Being Shy’

Selective mutism is a diagnosable condition that significantly interferes with a child’s ability to adapt and function in social situations. It’s defined as a failure to speak in situations where the child is expected to speak. The child perceives the situation as uncomfortable and usually with a degree of social pressure to interact. Novel situations are especially difficult; however, a child with this disorder may, for example, not speak in the classroom for an entire school year, long after they’ve had an opportunity to ‘warm-up’. A less severe variant may manifest in a child needing a few weeks before they are willing to speak and, even then, possibly not engaging in more than brief responses. However, in situations found to be more comfortable, such as at home, the child speaks freely.

How Common is Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is considered to be rather rare; less than 1% of the population. However, it’s important to note that this disorder is considered to be an anxiety disorder and there is substantial overlap between selective mutism and social anxiety, the latter of which is found at upwards of 7% of the population. Social anxiety and selective mutism are considered to be two separate conditions. From my clinical experience, all children who have selective mutism also have social anxiety; although not all kids with social anxiety will present with selective mutism.

Isn’t This The Same as ‘Just Being Shy’?

No, it’s not. But there can be a fine line, depending on the level of severity. Shy individuals are usually hesitant to speak or engage at times, but when they need to do so they can. Children with selective mutism find themselves literally unable to speak in those uncomfortable situations.

What Causes Selective Mutism?

It’s important to note that the child is not being defiant. The child wants to talk, but the anxiety literally ‘clams them up.’ The condition is largely genetic and evidenced when anxiety runs in the family. There was a time when the culprit was believed to be a traumatic experience: we’ve all seen the movies where a person experiences trauma and thereafter presents as mute. That type of reaction is feasible but rare and, far more often, this disorder is congenital. Invariably, parents will say that their child has always been quiet and timid.

What To Do?

It’s important to seek professional treatment given that selective mutism can be quite debilitating to the child and is challenging to treat. The condition is addressed similarly to social anxiety in terms of bolstering the child’s coping skills (healthy self-talk), deep breathing, lots of practice and role-plays of social situations, and gradual exposure to actual anxiety-provoking situations. This entails practicing and role-playing social situations, over and over, in a fun and playful way, and gradually working your child into the real situation. A professional therapist is invaluable in that respect; call to schedule at (724)-850-7200 to be seen at any of our five offices, or virtually.

Another Good Resource:

I also want to introduce you to a wonderful 11-series Podcast on Audible “Selective Mutism Help, which does a great job in providing an overview of the disorder, and helpful tips and suggestions from parents whose kids have suffer from it. Accessibility to the podcast would entail subscribing to Audible. Disclaimer: I have no financial nor clinical stake in Audible or its products; I just found the podcast to be helpful and think you may as well.

I Hope You Found This To Be Helpful

Selective mutism is a confusing and vexing disorder. However, it is treatable with a patient, mindful, and step-by-step approach. If you have any concerns about your child, don’t hesitate to reach out at God bless you and your kiddo(s). 😊

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