Selective Mutism – When It’s More Than Just Shyness

Selective Mutism - When It's More Than Just Shyness

Do you have a child who has been diagnosed with selective mutism?

If not, do you find your child is unable to speak in specific social situations?

Or perhaps you suspect there’s something more to your child’s intense shyness in social settings.

Selective mutism is not commonly known about or understood by parents, and even teachers.

Yet it’s an issue which can have a big impact on a child’s quality of life.

No doubt you want to support your child as best as possible.

But don’t forget, you need support too.

When your child has a condition which is relatively unheard of, there can be a lot of judgement and assumptions.

Not only your child’s behaviour, but your parenting too.

This can leave you feeling lost and doubting yourself as a parent.

What Is Selective Mutism?

Selective mutism is a fear of speaking in certain situations or environments, and is viewed as an anxiety disorder.

The majority of children with selective mutism also have a social phobia.

Just like adults may have a fear of heights or spiders, selectively mute children have a fear of speaking.

This is especially the case where there’s an expectation to speak – even saying thank you if someone gives them something.

My daughter was diagnosed with selective mutism at approximately four years of age.

While she made progress over the years, when she was 15, she was still living with social anxiety, which was crippling at times.

Now she’s 16 and has made massive progress.

I’ll tell you more about her progress at the end of this article.

The reason I want to share my daughter’s story with you is so you know this article has been written someone who not only knows about selective mutism, but also understands it.

Firstly, here are some basics about selective mutism.

Selective Mutism Symptoms

The first thing carers, teachers or parents tend to notice about a child with selective mutism is they’re immensely shy.

This isn’t the typical child that needs a bit of time to ‘warm up’ to someone. It’s ongoing.

Eye contact is minimal or does not exist.

Parents may notice their child will act out or tantrum when going somewhere, when someone is visiting them, or when they’re doing something their child fears.

This can be due to overwhelming anxiety.

Children with Selective Mutism do not feel comfortable speaking in certain situations – hence the word ‘selective’.

This is usually when they’re in the care of others, for example at kindergarten, childcare or school.

Often, the children will freely speak at home.

So much so, parents may wish their child would speak a little less, so they can catch a breath!

Perhaps it’s how selectively mute children make up for a whole day of not speaking.

There’s so much to process in a child’s world!

This is why Selective Mutism can be so confusing to parents, because they see their children talking a whole lot.

Studies have found selectively mute children are:

  • Most likely to speak at home
  • Less likely to speak out of the home (e.g. supermarket)
  • Least likely to speak at school.

Children with Selective Mutism usually do not speak to teachers, principals, teaching assistants and other students, at least initially.

They typically feel comfortable speaking to their peers, before they can comfortably speak to teachers.

Selectively Mute Children In Social Settings

When selectively mute children are placed in a situation where they are expected to speak, they often:

  • Look down or away
  • Bite their lip
  • Blush
  • Freeze up
  • Hide behind their hair
  • Display other signs of anxiety.

They may make non-verbal gestures as a way to communicate.

For example, pointing or nodding.

They also avoid making any noise which may draw attention to themselves.

For example, they may avoid or stifle any laughing or coughing.

These children become so clever at communicating non-verbally that teachers and carers can often work out what the child wants, simply by the expression used by the child.

Because selectively mute children fear speaking and being put on the spot, they can easily feel embarrassed and humiliated.

It’s very important not to force them to speak or call them out in front of others, because it’ll only trigger further anxiety.

You wouldn’t tell a child with a fear of heights to go skydiving and get over it.

And you certainly can’t expect a child with Selective Mutism to just speak and get over it.

When Do Children Commonly Display Signs Of Selective Mutism?

The symptoms of selective mutism typically present around three years of age.

However, some parents believe their child has been that way from birth.

With the introduction to kindergartens and increased social exposure, Selective Mutism is more likely to be picked up at this age.

Of course, many cases of Selective Mutism go undiagnosed, and these children continue onto school.

Signs are usually well present by the age of five.

Parents may not be able to recognise the signs of Selective Mutism until their child is in school, when it’s harder to treat.

The earlier this condition is addressed, the better.

Selective Mutism Treatment

As a mother of a child with Selective Mutism, this is something I found very confusing.

Speech therapists were claiming to be the right professionals to treat Selective Mutism, and psychologists were saying the same.

I didn’t even know where to start.

In the end I decided to start with a children’s clinical psychologist.

Clinical psychologists are more experienced than regular psychologists.

They have Masters Degrees, and have greater depth of training and experience.

Your child’s therapist can establish if the Selective Mutism is a result of a speech problem, requiring a speech therapist, or not.

But many children (like my own daughter) who are confident with language and speak clearly, do not need a speech therapist.

Very few child psychologists have extensive experience in the treatment of Selective Mutism.

I had to contact many psychologists before I found the right person.

The majority of responses were, “I’ve heard of it, but not worked with it,” or, “I’ve worked with one or two children who had it.”

It’s so important to do your homework, as it can make a huge difference in your child’s improvement.

The Progress of Selective Mutism in Children

According to the book, Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism by McHolm et al, the following ten step ‘Conversational Ladder’ exists for children with Selective Mutism as they progress.

  • Stage 1: Complete Mutism. Child speaks at home but is silent at school/kinder. Appears anxious at school and may resist going to school.
  • Stage 2: Relaxed Nonverbal Participation. Child speaks at home but not at school. Begins relaxing and participating nonverbally in classroom activities. May begin to talk positively about school.
  • Stage 3: Speaks to Parent At School. Child speaks at school when alone with a parent in a place where students and teachers cannot hear or see, often in a whispered voice.
  • Stage 4: Speaking Observed By Peers. Child speaks at school, usually to a parent. Peers observe but do not hear the child speaking since he typically whispers so quietly as to be inaudible to observers.
  • Stage 5: Speaking Overheard By Peers. Child speaks audibly at school, usually to a parent. Other children observe and hear the child speaking. Child does not speak directly to other teachers or peers.
  • Stage 6: Speaking Through Parent To Peers. Child speaks to parent who conveys message to another classmate sitting closeby. The classmate may overhear the child and respond directly.
  • Stage 7: Speaking to Peers. Child speaks at school to one peer, often on the playground. Child does not speak to teachers.
  • Stage 8: Speaking to Several Peers. Child speaks to several children at school. Child does not speak to teachers.
  • Stage 9: Speaking to Teacher. Child begins speaking to teacher and speaks to several peers.
  • Stage 10: Normal speaking. Child speaks to most adults and peers in a normal conversational tone.

It’s an ongoing process to treat selective mutism.

It’ll help immensely if you educate yourself with quality books on the topic (see my recommended list below).

How Common Is Selective Mutism?

Doctor Elizabeth Woodcock is the principal Clinical Psychologist at the Selective Mutism Clinic in New South Wales, Australia.

Doctor Woodcock says in the first three years of school, approximately 1 in 100 children are thought to have Selective Mutism.

This rate is comparable to other disorders such as depression.

Around one third of children with Selective Mutism also have language impairments.

There’s an increased prevalence of Selective Mutism in bilingual families.

Selective Mutism is slightly more common in females than males.

A proportion of children are suggested to have a transient form of mutism that tends to remit without treatment.

Selective Mutism Can Affect Children And Adults

Selective mutism can affect both children and adults – it can persist into adolescence or early adulthood.

Parents and schools often delay seeking treatment due to the common expectation that the child will outgrow the behaviour.

Therefore, treatment for Selective Mutism is often sought after the child has failed to speak for four to five years.

At this point in time, the child may experience secondary social and emotional problems, and treatment is much more difficult.

Research also suggests that of those children who do begin to speak without treatment, a proportion continue to experience clinically significant levels of anxiety.

They may experience social, academic and communication difficulties as well.

Selective Mutism At School

It’s critical for families and schools to work together.

The most difficult environment for selectively mute children is at school (specifically reading to or speaking to teachers) as there is an expectation that they must speak.

I gave handouts to my daughter’s school (making sure the individual teacher had the handouts in her file).

My daughter’s therapist even came to the school for one of the staff meeting nights, and gave a talk about Selective Mutism.

I donated a couple of books to the school, which were designed for teachers and school children.

These included:

A book which may be helpful to give to the school/teacher is Helping Children with Selective Mutism and Their Parents: A Guide for School-Based Professionals.

However for parents at home, I recommend Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism by McHolm et al.

Dealing With Unsupportive Or Judgemental Adults

It was my first-born child who was diagnosed with Selective Mutism.

I was already feeling vulnerable as a first-time mother.

But my experience triggered all my ‘not good enough’ buttons.

I felt like I was failing this parenting gig and doubted myself often.

It surprised me how many adults took it upon themselves to ‘fix’ my daughter’s shyness, or my parenting.

Some family members and relatives told me it was my fault for not socialising her enough.

But I had already tried baby swimming lessons, Gymbaroo, attended mothers groups, and childcare.

None of it helped.

Some of it made it even worse.

The childcare centre would call me to come and pick up my daughter, because she wouldn’t stop screaming.

My in-laws (at the time) believed nothing was wrong with my daughter, and she needed to get over being shy.

They insisted she be a flower girl at an upcoming wedding.

My daughter was terrified about being in the spotlight or the focus of any attention.

When I said no, this created tension.

Other parents at her kindergarten saw it as a challenge to make her talk.

When you’re doing the very best you can, and those around you believe there is no excuse for your ‘naughty’, ‘manipulative’ or ‘stubborn’ child, it can be very hurtful and upsetting.

What You Can Do

Try to spend time around those who are most supportive, and less time around those who are not.

It isn’t always easy, but it will make the world of difference.

You can try to educate those around you as best you can, if they are willing.

Provide handouts designed for teachers or family, or you might like to organise a family therapy session with your child’s psychologist.

Getting in touch with families going through the same thing can be such a huge relief and support.

After the child psychologist diagnosed my daughter with Selective Mutism, I researched and found a forum based in the US, and started chatting with parents.

To my complete surprise, I ended up connecting with a mother whose daughter went to the very same kindergarten my daughter did.

This was way back when social media wasn’t a big thing and getting in touch wasn’t so easy.

Tips For Parents With Selectively Mute Children

Here are my best tips for parents with selectively mute children.

  • Don’t force your child to speak or punish them for not speaking. They need your understanding and are not being difficult, they may be frozen with anxiety or fear.
  • Inform yourself! Read books, research on the internet, join forums – find out as much as you can. The more you know, the easier life will be for all of you.
  • Inform your child’s teacher/carer by giving them information. You can download some information for teachers and others at the selectivemutism.org website.
  • Avoid speaking about your child’s selective mutism in front of them. I find the more I talk about her shyness in front of others, the more it seems she has to live up to that expectation. When I say less, she takes bigger steps.
  • Seek help. Personally, I would not have coped without the constant support of our child psychologist, who was able to reassure me as a mother. It’s easy to doubt yourself, and if you’re doing the right thing.
  • Prepare your child for changes ahead of time. For example, when they’ll be around people they’re not familiar with or comfortable with. If you’re due to have visitors, let your child know ahead of time. If you’re going to visit someone, again, let them know in advance. Set-up fun activities on a table, so your child to be kept busy without the expectation to interact. For example, I’d get out some colouring books and pencils, sticker books, puzzles etc – away from the visitors.
  • Don’t blame yourself. It’s nothing to do with your parenting skills or who you are. Some children are just more prone to anxiety. It certainly makes sense in my family – both my ex-husband and I have suffered from anxiety as children, and sometimes still do.
  • Work on your own anxiety. It’s not ideal for your child see that their Selective Mutism is creating anxiety for YOU. Anxiety can be catchy. Be the calm that they need.

Recommended Resources & Reading For Selective Mutism

My recommended self-help book for parents is:

Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism by McHolm, A. E., Cunningham, C. E., & Vanier, M. K.

The description is as follows:

“This book is the first available for parents of children with selective mutism. It offers a broad overview of the condition and reviews the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. The book details a plan you can use to coordinate professional treatment of your child’s disorder. It also explains the steps you can take on your own to encourage your child to speak comfortably in school and in his or her peer group. All of the book’s strategies employ a gradual, ‘stepladder’ approach. The techniques gently encourage children to speak more, while at the same time helping them feel safe and supported.”

Doctor Woodcock recommends parents use these books while receiving help from a professional experienced in the treatment of Selective Mutism.

Selective Mutism isn’t a condition you can self-manage.

Another very helpful support and information site is selectivemutism.org.

You’ll find lots of useful handouts on all topics relating to selective mutism (SM).

My Daughter’s Journey

Sometimes I get emails asking me about my daughter’s progress.

I first wrote this article not long after her diagnosis, when I had done a lot of research.

Marisa’s personal transformation is epic – what she’s now achieved, I never expected.

You can read her latest update on my Facebook page.

A diagnosis of Selective Mutism isn’t the end of anything for your child.

In fact, it may be a catalyst for a massive, empowering transformation.

Selective Mutism Documentary

There was a documentary about Selective Mutism in 2006 on Channel 4.

You can watch it below – it’s in four parts.

All the best for your family’s journey with selective mutism.

Help Me To Speak Part 1:

Part 2:

Help Me To Speak Part 3:

Part 4:

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Kelly Winder CONTRIBUTOR

Kelly Winder is the creator of BellyBelly.com.au, a writer, doula (trained in 2005), and a mother of three awesome children. She's passionate about informing and educating fellow thinking parents and parents-to-be, especially about all the things she wishes she knew before she had her firstborn. Kelly is also passionate about travel, tea, travel, and animal rights and welfare. And travel.


2 comments

  1. Great article and am very grateful for the links to handouts and books! Thanks so much!! My son is not diagnosed however I do believe he has SM since starting kindy 2 and a bit years ago. We have progressed through each of the stages as listed above over this time and now he has started Prep this year and in week 7 I can confidently say he is at stage 8 and beginning on stage 9! Wahooooo!!!! What a journey! We are so close but still so far, it feels some days, but he is definitely progressing and loving school, talking now to a few good friends not only in the playground but also in the classroom now! He said his first word to his teacher a couple of weeks ago and again today!! Small steps but HUGE steps for us as his parents. So proud of our boy! Parents, def arm yourself with knowledge about SM and educate your childs caregivers. Do NOT put the child under pressure to speak, EVER! It is difficult some days not to place pressure on them but believe me, it does not help one bit. We also had an assessment done with an Occupational Therapist to rule out sensory overload (although she believed SM came under the sensory banner to an extent). So important to find the right caregiver for your child. Cannot emphasize that enough. I have just ordered the book you recommended for parents above so look forward to increasing my own awareness and understanding of this issue. I have read, and read, and read everything I can over the past two years. I am confident we will continue seeing further progress and I thank you again for this article.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      I also have a 5 year old boy at stage 8. He has come a long way. Just started school and saying a few words to teachers. I’ve been through a hard time dealing having been confronted by many parents whom think Tom is rude etc. I just read this article and it hit home as I don’t think I truly wanted to admit he has SM.

      I’m glad your child is progressing. Please could you tell me about the book you have bought. The author etc. I’d like to learn more about it.

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