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What is Selective Mutism in Children?

AnxietyPanda 14

Last updated on November 29, 2019

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Selective Mutism is a condition that affects an estimated 1 out of every 700 children during some stage of their life.

In this article, we will be focusing on what is Selective Mutism in children specifically as it is more commonly experienced by people in that age group. Sometimes, it can also be experienced in adults.

AnxietyPanda distinctly remembers the first time when she was struck with Selective Mutism.

It was the first day of school. MomPanda took me to TeacherPanda and when TeacherPanda asked me what my name is, I just froze and could not get any words to come out of my mouth! I literally just stood there blushing and couldn’t get myself to talk.
It was so weird.
I was looking forward to going to school and have been talking about it excitedly for days.

MomPanda was shocked and couldn’t understand what was going. Although I was always known as an extremely shy cub, I was still able to at least say hello, etc. But this was because I was always surrounded either by my parents and siblings or other close family members. AnxietyPanda was never put in a situation where she met a stranger for the first time, not to mention a BUNCH of other strange cubs!

I recall a feeling of not understanding what was happening to me either and feeling very embarrassed too. The first two years of school, I was even too shy to ask to go to the bathroom. Needless to say, I had a few accidents in class, cementing my path as “not cool enough” throughout my entire academic career. This type of behavior (minus the accidents, as I eventually learned to control my bladder) stayed with me until young adulthood and AnxietyPanda has now luckily outgrown this, sort of…it still shows its face every now and then…

Believe it or not, when AnxietyPanda was a cub, there was NO INTERNET :O
She really wishes there were such resources as the Internet available because perhaps MomPanda could have had enough information to do something about this.

So, AnxietyPanda will now share her knowledge of Selective Mutism in the hopes of reaching or helping at least one person that may be suffering from this too.

What is Selective Mutism in Children – A Quick Overview

Children with Selective Mutism, or SM, are not just shy they are extremely shy.

Often, they find it hard to talk or function under certain circumstances or to talk to certain people. Each child will show different symptoms.

Where some may only be able to speak in a whisper, if at all, others may just freeze up with fear and others may remain expressionless and mute.

A child with SM will most probably also have other mental disorders such as anxiety, shyness, moodiness or having sleep problems. They may also be from a bilingual family or have spent time in a foreign country before the age of 4.

On the other side, a very small percentage of kids who have SM will not be shy at all. They will seek attention in any manner besides speaking and can be quite “busy”.

It is safe to say that Selective Mutism is a mental health condition as there have been no studies yet that prove that this is caused by any external forms of trauma or abuse.

Selective, Traumatic and Progressive Mutism

A child suffering from SM will very rarely be mute in all situations. They are mostly shy and have a tendency towards social anxiety and the mutism is used as an avoidance tactic.

Traumatic mutism is usually developed as a result of a sudden traumatic event in the life of the child, such as the passing away of a close family member. The shock may be too much for the child to handle and process and this leads them to become mute in all situations. This can be overcome with therapy and love.

Sometimes, a child may start off having SM in certain social settings, but due to negative reinforcements or other things causing heightened anxiety levels, the child may become mute in all settings as well. They will not even speak to their parents. This form of mutism is known as Progressive Mutism.

Some personal negative reinforcement experienced by AnxietyPanda was that many adults accused her of being devious and not trustworthy. Because it didn’t make sense that I was able to talk to certain people and not to adults or authority people. Surely, there must be something wrong with me and I had bad intentions. This caused tremendous pain and stress in AnxietyPanda’s life, however she was lucky enough that her selective mutism did not turn into Progressive Mutism.

What are some symptoms to look out for?

If you know your child really well, you will be able to spot the symptoms of Selective Mutism by looking at the following behaviors a child with SM might display:

  • They may be extremely shy and timid, especially in unfamiliar settings. Usually withdrawn.
  • They almost definitely have social anxiety and hate being the center of attention.
  • They really do want friends but lack the social skills and confidence.
  • They may be clingy or controlling.
  • They may display anxiety symptoms such as nausea, nervousness, headaches etc.
  • They tend to lack eye contact and usually have a blank or scared expression – like a deer caught in the headlights. The stiffness lessens with age and/or depending on how comfortable they are in a situation.
  • They may show delays in development such as communication or motor skills.
  • They may be highly sensitive to noisy sounds or lots of visuals.
  • They tend to be withdrawn and play on their own.
  • They may hesitate to socially engage and to concentrate in class.
  • They often show signs of other anxiety-related symptoms such as Separation Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder etc.

The symptoms listed above are the most commonly displayed, but there are many more. If your child displays a combination of these symptoms for more than a month, best is to consult with a medical professional and get a diagnosis on what the problem may be.

The importance of diagnosing at an early age

According to, most children receive a diagnosis between the ages of 3 and 8 years of age. Children respond better to forms of treatment the younger they are.

If left untreated, a child may remain mute for many years and this can eventually become a habit that will be harder to break the older they get. It may also lead to worsening anxiety, poor self-esteem or underachievement, to name but a few.

The earlier a diagnosis takes place, the more beneficial it is for the child that has SM. By teaching them proper coping mechanisms and applying the correct treatment, these children can end up functioning normally in society.

I think my child has Selective Mutism. What now?

First, and most importantly, if you suspect your child has SM, immediately stop being negative about the fact that they are not talking (this sometimes happens unintentionally, so it’s something to watch out for). Instead, why not rather praise all efforts when they eventually do talk or say something. They need to feel safe, loved and accepted not the other way around.

Secondly, educate yourself about the condition. You will know much better what to do if you have a better understanding of SM and what it is that your child is experiencing. To get you started, you can find very informative articles over at the website for the Selective Mutism Organization. They also provide access to support groups and research studies that will further assist you on your path.

Third, consult with a physician or therapist that has a good understanding of Selective Mutism and work together with them to help your child through this process. It is important to note that you do not want to work with a physician whose approach is to force the child to speak by enforcing discipline and the likes on the child. It is negative and not healthy and will only cause further anxiety for your child.

You may want to ask a potential doctor some of the following questions before making a final decision:

  • Ask how many children they have treated with this condition and what the success rates were.
  • Ask what their opinion is on the reasons a child may develop Selective Mutism.
  • Ask for references of families they have worked with.
  • Ask what their treatment approach is and what their approach is to using medication.
  • Ask how you will fit into the picture. How will you or the child s teacher be involved in treatment?

It is important to remember that every child is different and it is best to work with your physician or therapist to create an individualized treatment plan for your child’s unique needs and circumstances.

Once you’ve chosen your professional, they will usually have an interview with you and an interview with the child. This will help them to get a better understanding of the surrounding circumstances and medical history. Often, the physician may commission a speech and language evaluation for the child as many kids with SM also have problems with speech or language development. Sometimes, a physical exam might be necessary.

What treatment options are available?

There are many forms of treatment available that will not force the child to speak, but rather teach them skills that will increase their self-esteem and confidence and lower their anxiety. A child may only need one form of treatment or a combination of the treatments may be applied. Here are some of the options:

  • Behavioural Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Play Therapy
  • Boosting Self Esteem of the child
  • Medication
  • Encouraging frequent socialization without pushing the child.
  • Involve the family and school. Make sure everybody has a good understanding of what is happening

In conclusion, recognizing the symptoms and seeking the right treatment at an early age will greatly assist your child in overcoming Selective Mutism and to continue living a normal fear-free life.

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  1. andrejs andrejs

    Thanks for the really informative and educational information.

     I think that this ailment affects many more children than just 0.8%. You are right that every kid is different and needs an individualized treatment plan. Unfortunately, we did not visit any specialists when our second daughter suffers, I guess it was Selective Mutism when she was about five to seven years old. We intuitively did many of things you have listed. 

    I just want to remind that it was not an easy task but today she is okay. 

    Thanks for the valuable post.

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      AnxietyPanda is happy that your daughter is okay! Well done on your positive parenting skills, you can be very proud. 

  2. Kenny Kenny

    Hello and thank you for having the courage to share your experiences with this condition. I can only imagine how hard it is to go through childhood with this condition. Schools tough enough at the best of times. I have some friends who’s boy did not speak for about 2 years. Fortunately there are better ways to treat things like this now and far more understanding available. He now speaks, although it still very shy. Thank you again for sharing this, I hope your other site visitors are as inspired as me. Kenny 

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Thanks, Kenny! Appreciate the comment. With continued positive encouragement, your friend’s boy will be sure to improve. All the best. Keep us posted 🙂

  3. sanjay sanjay

    Thanks for writing such helpful post on the topic that I think only few people know about. As a parents or family members we ignore these symptoms and we generally think our child is just shy and will be fine with time. One of my friend’s daughter shows most of the symptoms you have mentioned and I want him to read your post and treat her daughter accordingly.

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Thanks, sanjay 🙂 

      If your friend agrees and recognizes a combination of these symptoms, he should definitely seek a diagnosis from a professional physician or therapist. It will assist in choosing the best treatment for his daughter’s individual needs. Best of luck. 

  4. Chris Chris

    A really interesting article, covering a subject I actually suffered from myself as a kid, without ever really knowing it was a condition that had a name – Selective Mutism.

    I seemed to be fine with kids of my own age, but whenever my mother took me to playschool or a new group I would cling to her hand and go completely silent – she still brings it up to this day and laughs – says I used to be a complete ‘Mummy’s Boy’ and she would have to stick around for the first hour…then sneak off when I had finally settled in. 

    That was back in the late 70’s, and it’s lovely to see that things have changed now to the point where articles like this can cover the subject and offer some solid advice. Do you feel that this condition was not taken seriously enough back then – that children were merely thought of as the ‘shy kid’?

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Hi Chris, thanks for commenting!

      AnxietyPanda feels that perhaps there was just not enough information available back then. People only knew what they knew. Mental health was not a popular topic, I guess. So I do not blame people for defaulting these symptoms to mere shyness. 

      So, yes, perhaps not taken seriously enough, but not on purpose. 

  5. Loes Loes

    Thank you! I am 58 now, and we did’t have this kind of therapeutic observations about shyness. This is so recognizable to me. Until now, I never heard that there was a name for it. I must have suffered in my entire youth from selective mutism. I could go totally blank in unfamiliar situations. When the teacher called out my name, I simply couldn’t answer, what had an effect on my complete school career. You can imagine that my lectures for the class were a dramatic experience.  My cure was the arrival of my first child, to small and not able to speak up for herself, I stepped out of my shyness and be her speaking tube. Ever since, I can handle better unfamiliar places. However, I am not keen on searching them. I rather stay at home than go on holiday or mingle in parties.


    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      AnxietyPanda ABSOLUTELY relates to you! Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us! 

      We salute you for the amazing gift you have given your child. Putting her needs above your fears. 

      AnxietyPanda has no cubs, but what changed things for her was when she took a teaching job and during the training, she was taught to take on “another personality”, almost as if to act in order to help her cope. This sounds strange, but it did work, and now she is able to be herself and can at least speak in most situations, although things like meetings and performance or having too many strangers around still freak her out and make her go quiet and get anxious.

      There’s no place like home

  6. Lucas Lucas

    Hi anxietyPanda you have a really cute writing style haha. 

    To be very honest with you, I’m still not quite sure on how severe selective mutism is when compared to like just pure shyness. I was a very quiet boy ( or cub ? ) when I was young but I don’t really see a problem with it.

    I think the most important factor is that the people around me don’t seem to give me any negative comments about it. I believe if a parent is worried about their child having selective mutism, the best thing they can do is just give them lots of love so their confidence can eventually grow.

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Hi Lucas 😀 Thank you for the compliment, glad you enjoyed it!

      You hit the hammer on the nail when you say the best thing a parent can do is give love! Nothing grows a childs confidence more than feeling loved, accepted and understood. AnxietyPanda hates that there are BigPandas there who think they can force their negative ways onto poor defenseless cubs. Love is always the answer

  7. Jurgen Jurgen

    I never knew about selective mutism, but when reading your article it sounds very familiar…

    It does surprise that it only affect 0.8% of all people… As I’ve seen children expressing this kind of behavior. Even I had some of these anxieties when I was a child. Could it be that I’m confusing SM with a milder social disorder?

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Thanks for this question, there are surely more people who will wonder about this. 

      There is a difference between shyness, social anxiety and selective mutism, although they may sometimes co-manifest. A child with selective mutism, for example, will not necessarily be shy and actually enjoy the company of others, but some irrational fear keeps them from speaking in select scenarios. So, the chances of coming across kids exhibiting these types of behaviors are big indeed. That is why it is so important to get a professional diagnosis, as there really are differences in the way these conditions should be treated. Hope this answered your question 🙂

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