Selective Mutism: Beyond Normal Shyness

by | Oct 9, 2018 | Self Compassion

Esther Lee, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

9 October 2018

Selective Mutism is a condition where children experience intense anxiety communicating with others. Often parents don’t notice anything until their child goes to preschool or school and is required to interact with teachers and peers.

Although it is a relatively rare condition that affects approximately 2-18 per 10,000 children, when it does occur it can be both confusing and stressful for the child, parents and teachers.

I’ve heard parents say:

“She is so loud at home, but she’s like a completely different person when we go out. It’s almost as if her lips are glued!”

“His teacher told me that he would just freeze when she approaches him. She has no clue how to assess his reading skills.”

“She’ll only talk to one friend in class. Never in her normal voice though. Just whispering.”

“I’m losing my patience with her. I have tried everything- bribing, scolding, begging… Nothing seems to work.”

Confusion, frustration and worry is quite common among parents, particularly when their children are so active at home and they also seem to get along with their peers just fine.

What do children with Selective Mutism Experience?

For children with Selective Mutism, fear of speaking is a regular experience. They may be worried that others will hear their voice and make comments or judgements about them, that they sound funny or different, that they will say the wrong thing or that others will make a big deal when they speak. Children with Selective Mutism are often unable to respond even in high-stake situations, such as when they have hurt themselves and need some assistance or even when they need to go to the bathroom.

How can you help?

Take the pressure off and communicate understanding

Let these children know you understand the difficult feelings they experience when they try to speak. Explain that it is okay if they are not ready to speak or to communicate in certain situations and that you can help them to learn to be more confident. Usually having the problem acknowledged provides relief and makes the situation less frightening for them.

Assist them to communicate in a way they can

Break down the steps of communication into something that is easier for them to do. For example, if it is too difficult to speak directly to the shop assistant, suggest that they nod or whisper an answer to you instead.

Get some assistance to learn non-avoidant coping

Given that Selective Mutism is a more severe form of social anxiety, children do not simply grow out of it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be the most effective treatment for Selective Mutism. This therapy involves assisting children to challenge their worried thoughts and to face their fears in a gradual way, while working closely with the parents and teachers to impart the skills to support the children to become confident communicators.

If you are a parent or an educator of a child who might be experiencing Selective Mutism and would like to find out more, please contact The Talbot Centre for more information on how we can help.



Esther Lee

Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

Esther works with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of presenting concerns and from various cultural backgrounds. She has worked in both hospital and community settings, gaining valuable insight into how mental health issues influence social, family, vocational and educational realms of life, and potentially distort how we see ourselves.