Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder found in children that is characterized by an inability to speak when asked to due to fear. This mental illness typically co-exists with social anxiety and shyness. A child’s selective mutism may greatly impede on their ability to successfully coexist with their peers, as well as effectively engage with their teachers at school. This may also negatively affect their self-esteem as well.

For children suffering with selective mutism, they are fully capable of speaking to authoritative figures, but will often resist this as the expectation for them to speak when asked is enough to give them an influx of overwhelming anxiety at the mere thought of it. The feeling of expectation is very difficult for children suffering from this illness as they may find it very challenging with initiating conversation with others.

Interestingly enough, children suffering from selective mutism will not abstain from communicating with everyone. For instance, someone with this condition may speak to their teachers if they feel comfortable enough to do so and if the environment is nonthreatening enough, but they may be stricken with silence when in the presence of their peers due to any expectations they may be perceiving by them. The same thing can clearly be seen the other way around.

As is the case with all other mental disorders, the severity of selective mutism is on a wide spectrum. Some people with this disorder may interact with others by participating in activities like everyone else would, except they may simply refrain from speaking. Others may whisper when asked a question. All in all, children with this disorder are often extremely timid and shy.

Symptoms of Selective Mutism

A child suffering from selective mutism will find it very difficult to interact with most people in their day to day life. They may become paralyzed by their anxiety to the point to where they are unable to comfortably speak with those who ask them questions. They may feel a great amount of pressure when in such a situation. They may also exaggerate the amount of effort involved with responding, as well as what is being asked of them.

Their extreme shyness will likely make it very difficult for them to maintain and form new healthy relationships with others. They may also feel as though they have no control over their reactions with others. They may force them to believe that they have no other choice but to react to the ever changing whims of their emotional state of mind.

They may greatly fear social situations in general and actively try to avoid them so they won’t be pressured to speak for any reason. For children with selective mutism, their inability to speak has nothing to do with their intellect or ignorance, but everything to do with the amount of anxiety and stress they experience.

Below, you will see some more common symptoms of selective mutism:

  • Intense anxiety when asked to speak
  • Avoiding situations where they may be asked to speak
  • Avoiding certain people who may speak to them
  • Extreme timidness and shyness
  • Feeling pressured to speak or deliver
  • Quiet around certain individuals
  • Difficulty expressing themselves
  • Unable to cope with their fear
  • Shakiness, sweating, and increased heart rate

Causes of Selective Mutism

There is no known cause of selective mutism. Nevertheless, genetics and one’s environment may both play significant roles in the development of this condition. This is typically the case with virtually every mental disorder. For instance, a child who has a family history of anxiety disorders may have an increased chance of developing selective mutism. This may be due to them being genetically predisposed to developing mental illness.

If a child were to have such a genetic predisposition to developing mental illness, then it may only require them experiencing some sort of traumatic event for them to develop full blown selective mutism. For example, they may have been greatly embarrassed once before when asked a question in class and didn’t know the answer. Though this happens to a great deal of students, a sensitive child with a genetic predisposition to develop mental illness may then develop selective mutism because of the experience insofar as it was traumatic enough for them.

There is a consensus among most mental health professionals that both genetics and environmental factors play significant roles in the development of virtually every mental illness. With this being said, it may be effective for you to look at your child’s family history, as well as their environment to see whether or not they may be at risk for developing selective mutism.

Selective Mutism Treatment

There are many different forms of treatment that may be advantageous for a child suffering with this illness. Some of these treatments include desensitization, self-modeling, stimulus fading, spacing, shaping, mystery motivators, as well as pharmacological treatment, among others. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be beneficial as well.

All of these different forms of treatment are meant to help the child feel more comfortable with speaking. Though some of them will give the child more acute anxiety, such as with desensitization for example, the goal will be for the child to improve their ability to speak to others with much less stress and anxiety.

A low dose of an anti-anxiety medication or an anti-depressant may be able to help your child suffering from selective mutism also, but this is something that you will want to first discuss with your doctor, especially depending on the age of your child as it may not be healthy to give them medication at an early age.

If you think you or your child may have selective mutism or is suffering from some of the symptoms outlined in this article, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can so that you can be properly diagnosed and treated. Upon seeing your doctor, she may refer you to see a specialist such as a therapist or a psychiatrist for further treatment. Doing so may be very beneficial for treating the specific symptoms that are associated with selective mutism.