Selective Mutism for Kids – Causes & Treatment

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Has a teacher told you that your child doesn’t speak willingly at school? Does your talkative child suddenly refuse to go with you for a large family gathering or into her dance class?

If your kids behave differently at home than they are in school, they may have selective mutism.

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate readily in social situations. Kids with selective mutism hesitate in initiating a speech or responding when spoken to others in social settings.

Kids with selective mutism may not communicate in select social settings, but they can comfortably talk in another place. It usually begins before a child is five years old. People often misunderstand selective mutism, which’s why it can be misdiagnosed, but early detection and treatment are essential to better outcomes down the road.

Symptoms of Selective mutism

If you have a firm belief that your child is struggling with selective mutism, look for the following symptoms.

  • Slow to respond in a social situation
  • Always expressionless, flat face
  • Social isolation
  • Temper tantrums
  • A high level of shyness
  • Refusal to speak to specific situations
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Use of non-verbal communication to express needs.

While these behaviours are self-protective, other kids may often perceive them as defiant.

Causes of selective mutism

Due to the rareness of selective mutism, risk factors are not fully understood. Before, it was believed that selective mutism resulted from trauma, childhood abuse, or upheaval.

Today, research proved that the disorder is related to social anxiety. But there are some other triggers as well that can be linked to the disorder, including:

  • Children diagnosed with selective mutism tend to be very shy.
  • They may have an anxiety disorder.
  • Overly controlling behaviour on the part of parents can also be a risk.
  • Children fear embarrassing themselves in front of others.
  • Genetic predisposition

Sometimes selective mutism co-occurs with other disorders such as:

  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Language problems
  • Panic disorder
  • Anxiety

Consequences of selective mutism

Understand that selective mutism can negatively impact children in many ways. Children with this disorder struggle to participate in classroom discussions and co-curricular activities, engage in reciprocal social interactions and fail to express their needs outside of the home.

Selective mutism can result in the following consequences:

  • Academic problems – if children with selective mutism fail to speak up about their lack of understanding in the classroom, they can fall behind academically.
  • Social isolation – as we mentioned before, children with selective mutism struggle to engage themselves in social interactions, making it difficult for them to make and maintain friends.
  • Other than that, it may also lead to low self-esteem and social anxiety if it goes untreated.

Treatment of selective mutism

Unlike other disorders, selective mutism is the most receptive to treatment when it is caught early. Treatment of selective mutism involves psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Psychotherapy is generally the first recommendation.

With selective mutism, some kids have a co-occurring speech and language disorder. That’s why it’s a good idea to perform a speech and language assessment to rule out communication disorders.


Behaviour management programs are commonly used for the treatment of selective mutism. These programs include techniques like desensitization and positive reinforcement. Once can apply both methods at home or school under the supervision of a psychologist.


Only in severe and chronic cases or when other methods have not improved, health professionals can suggest medication. The choice of using medicine should be made in consultation with an experienced doctor.

Tips for parents of children with selective mutism

In addition to other treatment options, parents can do some other things to help their child manage their condition.

  • Take away verbal demands in a social situation. Try to lower your verbal demands and expectations. By doing so, your child will gradually learn to associate social situations with positive feelings rather than anxiety. Parents are suggested not to start asking questions from the child as soon as they walk into the birthday party or an event. Additionally, avoid talking about the child’s habit of not talking all the time.  
  • Inform teachers to work with your child. Most often, teachers become frustrated and angry with children who don’t respond. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to inform them about your child’s behaviour. Tell them to encourage your child and offer reward and praise for positive behaviour.
  • Avoid punishment. Where praising and rewarding positive behaviour is a good thing, punishing silence is not. You need to understand that your child will not overcome the fear of speaking through pressure or punishment.
  • Choose activities according to their skills. Parents are suggested not to engage their child in social situations or activities that demand spoken communication. Instead, involve them in activities that don’t need speech, such as art, reading, or doing puzzles.
  • Focus on non-verbal communication. Instead of asking questions that require a verbal answer, ask your child that allows a nod, such as a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Tell their coaches, teachers, and others in their circle to encourage them to ask questions that your kids can respond in the same way.
  • Don’t pressure your child. Family involvement plays a vital role in treatment, but try to avoid forcing your child to speak. By putting pressure, you’re making them more anxious. Show them their due support and acceptance.
  • Work in steps. Put your child in a comfortable situation where they can talk freely and then gradually introduce a new person or add a new demand. Don’t push them to do it all at once.
  • Set realistic goals and work together to achieve them. As long as you initially focus on your child’s comfort, it’s ok to push them so they can progress gently. Setting goals can help in yielding change when accomplished at the appropriate time.

In Conclusion

Don’t avoid social situations because of your child’s selective mutism. As a parent, you need to realize that a kid with selective mutism will not improve while sitting at home with their family, as they are already comfortable here.

At the start, you might feel stressed, but with time your child’s anxiety will reduce, and you will see progress. D won’t go away on its own that’s why talk to your doctor, who can help you create a plan of action.

John S. - Editor in Chief

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