In fact, you may see it as “they won’t” when in reality they can’t. Yes, physically they can speak, but emotionally there is a block. Nevertheless, it seems like they should be able to talk. As a result, you might get overwhelmed and angry when they don’t.
In particular, parents get frustrated with children who have this condition. Understanding selective mutism can help parents reduce their own stress in order to help their children.
Selective mutism is a childhood condition in which children are unable to speak in specific settings. It is a specific type of anxiety disorder.
The child has learned how to speak. They speak frequently and well in certain settings. Typically, they converse well in places where they are most comfortable. Therefore, they tend to be quite chatty children at home. That’s how their parents see them.
However, when they go into challenging social situations, they freeze up and become mute. They can’t speak at all or they can speak a little bit but not effectively. This may happen in school, at parties, or in other social settings.
It is very important for parents to understand that this is an anxiety disorder. This isn’t just a small fear of public speaking. It is an impairing form of anxiety.
In fact, the Selective Mutism, Anxiety, & Related Disorders Treatment Center reports that nine out of ten children with selective mutism will also have social anxiety or social phobia.
In other words, these children are anxious about being around others. It simply manifests for them as an inability to speak.
Notably, selective mutism is different from mutism caused by trauma. In traumatic mutism, a child that could previously speak usually stops speaking altogether after the event. In contrast, selective mutism only happens in specific settings, and is unrelated to trauma.
Children with selective mutism don’t all look the same. For example, some can talk freely most of the time and only become mute in one specific setting. On the other hand, others are mute by fear almost all of the time, even possibly at home.
Likewise, some children may be able to speak a little bit even in settings that give them anxiety.
For example, they might be able to speak directly to a single person, such as a favorite teacher. However, they can’t speak to other children. Others may only be able to muster a whisper. Still other children may not be able to talk or even give nonverbal responses.
Some children may freeze up physically. In addition to an inability to talk, they can’t move. They look emotionless and expressionless. However, underlying that is a lot of emotion. The primary emotion is fear.
Children with selective mutism feel a lot of pressure to speak. This exacerbates their anxiety.
Therefore, parents should start by relieving that pressure. Talk to your child. Let them know you understand that they feel scared to speak. Furthermore, praise them when they make any efforts to change.
Children with selective mutism can benefit greatly from therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, which is one of the most effective treatments for childhood anxiety. Parents are typically participating in therapy until the child is comfortable talking to the child therapist.
Children with selective mutism might also do well in group therapy. This may seem counterintuitive since the child will naturally be fearful of speaking in the group. However, group therapy provides a safe space to practice and grow. The child can meet other children with anxiety disorders and see that they aren’t alone. Plus, they will have the support of the group.
If you are having trouble understanding selective mutism, therapy can help. Learn more about services here.