What It Really Means When You Have Selective Mutism

Often misunderstood as being stubborn or shy, selective mutism is in fact something that should be looked out for from an early age. 

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association defines selective mutism as a child refusing to speak at select times, such as when they're meeting someone new or speaking in a classroom. Sometimes the child may want to speak but feels unable to do so due to their selective mutism. Moreover, the Selective Mutism Center states that 90% of children with selective mutism also have a social phobia or suffer from social anxiety, which could become a major issue in the future if left unnoticed or untreated.

It's a common misconception that children cannot suffer from social anxiety, but this isn't the case at all. Social anxiety in children is much like in adults — instead of brushing off an embarrassing moment, a child will replay the moment over and over in their heads and wish more than anything not to repeat it again (via Child Mind Institute). Some children will even stop themselves from doing everyday activities because of this fear, which can lead to severe select mutism.

There's not one clear sign for selective mutism but rather a collection of signs

Most children begin to show signs of selective mutism between the ages of two to four (via NHS). Signs tend to get stronger from four onwards, as this is when a child starts school and will be interacting the most with people who are not parents, guardians, or close relatives.

NHS notes that some of the signs you should be looking out for include your child displaying signs of being nervous or uneasy and clinging to you or a loved one excessively. They may also seem stiff, sulky, withdrawn, or disinterested. In some cases, children may become stubborn or angry when questioned about their quietness and lash out with a temper tantrum. All of these symptoms are in line with selective mutism, meaning that there isn't just one way for it to manifest. Another sign of selective mutism is a child having a drastic change in their personality or mannerisms when interacting with strangers. 

As the Selective Mutism Center points out, a shy child does not necessarily have selective mutism but could simply feel a bit timid around new people. The difference is that children with selective mutism feel shy and timid to the extreme, making it a potentially debilitating condition. 

It can be tricky to manage and to know what the best thing to do is

So, is there a cure for selective mutism? Verywellmind states that it is important to start treatment as soon as your child starts showing symptoms of selective mutism. This is because younger children tend to respond better to improvements — if your child is left to their own devices, they will become used to their selective mutism and find it very difficult in school and later on in life.

As outlined by the NHS, treatment for selective mutism is not about forcing someone to speak, but rather making them feel less anxious about speaking. You need to create a fun and relaxed environment in which a child feels happy and calm rather than on edge. Additionally, you should not show any major emotion if the child does choose to speak, as this may make them feel singled out or watched. 

If a child is diagnosed when they're older, they may require CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), which works to try and reframe thoughts, feelings, and moments (via Mayo Clinic). There are a few other techniques, too, including positive reinforcement and stimulus fading. The latter gradually introduces new people to a child alongside a trusted person like a parent or guardian to ease them in. Selective mutism can be a difficult thing to deal with, but it's always best to try and look out for signs as early as possible so it can be overcome sooner.