October 26, 2021

Is Your Child Just Shy — Or Is It Selective Mutism?

Talk to your pediatrician; early treatment is key

child shy at school

Has a teacher reported that your child does not speak regularly or readily at school? Does your usually-talkative, bubbly child suddenly clam up when you arrive together at a larger family gathering or when you drop them off at dance class?

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If your child appears to be a completely different person at home than they are in other social settings, they may have selective mutism. Selective mutism is often misunderstood and can be misdiagnosed, but early detection and treatment are crucial for better outcomes down the road.

Child psychologist Kristen Eastman, PsyD, says that in the past, children who were thought to be “just shy” or “defiant” for not talking, may actually meet the criteria for selective mutism.

What is selective mutism?

Selective mutism was always believed to be rare, however, more children may meet the criteria of a diagnosis than previously thought.

“Many seemed to think that a child would grow out of the behavior, which is not always the case,” says Dr. Eastman.

“What may appear as shyness actually has its roots based in anxiety, specifically an underlying fear of the expectation to talk,” she says.

“Shy kids may not volunteer to read aloud to the class, but when they need to do things, they can,” Dr. Eastman says. “The main difference is that shy children can still navigate everyday tasks, whereas children with selective mutism cannot.”

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What does selective mutism look like?

A child with selective mutism may not communicate in select social settings (often school), but they can comfortably talk in at least one other place (typically home).

Both girls and boys can be affected, though the condition tends to impact girls more than boys. The average age of onset is under age 5, but it’s often more evident when a child enters a structured social setting (such as preschool or daycare).

Children with selective mutism are overcome with anxiety at the prospect of giving a book report, saying hello to a classmate or talking with their coach at soccer practice. So they’re rendered frozen and unable to initiate and/or respond. Because of this, their experience at school and in other social settings may be hindered, teachers may be unable to assess them and they may struggle socially.

Selective mutism can look different depending on the child:

  • Some children can only talk to their immediate family and no one else outside of the home, even extended family.
  • Others may talk to relatives they see more regularly and not to those they don’t know as well.
  • Some may talk to other children but not to adults outside of their home.
  • Others may talk to their teacher when it’s one-on-one, but freeze up in the larger group setting when others are within earshot.

It’s important to understand that there’s much variability in how it appears — from day to day, from person to person and from setting to setting.

Watch for these signs of selective mutism:

  • Frozen or unresponsive manner.
  • Rigid, “stiff-as-a-board” body posture.
  • Expressionless, flat or “deer-in-headlights” face.
  • Slow to respond in a social situation.
  • Clinginess with parents when entering into social settings.

Early diagnosis is important

It’s important for parents to trust their instincts. If you feel like your child is acting very differently in select social settings outside of your home, and/or with select people, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider.

“The earlier you can make a diagnosis and start intervening, the better the prognosis long-term,” Dr. Eastman says.

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Helpful tips for you and your child with selective mutism

Dr. Eastman says that when she works with children with selective mutism, her goal is “to help the child to start associating social settings with less anxiety and increased comfort as soon as possible.”

She suggests the following initial strategies:

  1. Lessen the requirement for them to speak in social situations when possible: If you lower verbal demands and expectations, your child will gradually learn to associate social situations with comfort and positive feelings rather than anxiety. This means don’t start talking to or asking questions of the child as soon as they walk into the birthday party. This also means not talking a lot about how your child isn’t speaking because this can embarrass them and make the situation worse.
  2. Focus on building comfort: Understand that your child may not enter into social situations as eagerly as other children. Allow more time to ease into a situation, whether that means arriving early or allowing for practice time before entering into the larger group. Respect the longer warm-up time and think of ways to get your child more comfortable. Use humor whenever possible, help them get started in the activity and provide positive encouragement.
  3. Focus on nonverbal communication: Rather than posing questions requiring a verbal answer, instead ask your child a question that allows a nod, thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Talk with teachers, coaches and others to encourage them to ask questions that your child can respond to in this same way.
  4. Work in steps: Put your child in situations where they are comfortable and talking freely, and then gradually introduce a new person, expand to a new setting or add a new demand. Don’t push your child to do it all at once.
  5. Start slow and continue to set realistic goals: As long as you start slow and initially focus on your child’s comfort, it’s okay to gently push them so they can progress. Setting goals “just slightly beyond reach” is beneficial and, when done at the appropriate time, can yield change.

It’s also important not to completely refrain from placing any demands on your child or avoid all social situations because of your child’s selective mutism. A child with selective mutism won’t improve while sitting at home with their immediate family, as they are already comfortable and talking here.

“Though dealing with the problem may seem stressful at first, your child’s anxiety will reduce with time and you will see progress,” Dr. Eastman says.

Talk with your provider who can help you create a plan of action. Selective mutism typically does not go away on its own, and can lead to worsened anxiety and social difficulty if not addressed. Treatment is most successful when there is a cohesive plan between home and school to produce lasting change.

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