Selective Mutism: It is More Than Being Extremely Shy

Do you have an extremely shy child? They may possibly have selective mutism. Do they go to school and not talk?

Our middle child has always seemed to be "shy".  He will only talk to certain people.  When we are in a big group you can forget about him talking at all.  Christmas of 2009 is when I had enough of his not talking; as we were opening Christmas gifts at 3.5 years old he still would not say thank you to the gift giver.  I went home feeling defeated as a parent; I felt like I did something wrong by not teaching my son enough manners to say thank you.  I knew our son was shy, but I couldn't figure out when it was just my family (just my family equals about 15 people) that he wouldn't talk.  He sees all these people enough that he knows them all.  I started doing my research on coping with kids that are overly shy.   There were some other indications as well that he was extremely shy.  He had been going to preschool since September two mornings a week and he still didn't utter a word to the teacher or the other kids. 

As I searched high and low on the internet, I found a few articles about helping shy kids; but I just felt like there was more going on with our son than just being shy.  Then it happened.  I came across a case study article about a girl who had Selective Mutism.  As I read the article it freaked me out how much it reminded me of my son.  I instantly called my husband and said I know what is wrong with our son.  I brought home the article and my husband was also astonished at the resemblance between the girl in the article and our son.  Now that I had an answer, I wanted to truly understand what Selective Mutism really is. 

Selective mutism is best defined as a social anxiety disorder that causes children (can occur in adults as well) to be unable to speak in certain social settings.  For example, in a classroom, at a store, in a large group, etc.  However, they can speak very well in other settings; for example, when they are at home with just their immediate family.  People affected by Selective Mutism (SM) do not have language delays; their language is perfect in certain settings.  SM is also different from being shy; shyness is described as a socially adaptable personality trait, where SM is a social anxiety disorder.  The bottom line is that people who suffer from SM display their anxiety by not talking.   SM impairs them socially, but they still learn at school and can have other interactions without talking.  One interesting tid bit, there seems to be a genetic component; all kids that have SM seem to have a family history of shyness or anxiety.    

There are many facets to SM treatment.  They include reducing the child's anxiety, teaching them to cope with anxiety, in some cases medication is necessary as well.  The path taken is up to the parents and the treating professional.  Right now our son participates in play therapy with a therapist with great SM knowledge.  He has made some strides since starting play therapy; but it could be a long road.  It may take up to 2 years to get him to the point of being comfortable in a class room setting.  There is so much to learn about Selective Mutism, but I don't want to bore with any more facts.  I just want to share a few things I have learned since having a child with Selective Mutism.   

Things I have learned having a child with SM:

  • You can communicate with your child in other ways than talking.  This is critical in accepting that he may not even talk to you in a public or social setting.
  • The more someone pressures the child to talk, the more anxious he becomes about the situation and the less likely he is to talk to that person. 
  • Do not protect your child from situations that might make him anxious and impair him to talk.  This is good practice for coping with the anxiety.
  • Figure out where your child is comfortable talking and then expect that in the future; but if he back slides don't be angry or punish him.
  • There are many other traits that can go along with SM.  For example, not wanting their picture taken and having difficulty with toilet training.
  • Your child is not refusing to talk because he just doesn't want to; he truly has a deep anxiety about the situation he is in.   

If you think your child is just extremely shy, think again your child may have Selective Mutism.  Go to for more information. 


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