Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder which means that a child or young person is unable to speak in select situations and environments – for example, at school. They are, however, able to speak well in other places – for example, at home. Children who experience selective mutism can often freeze when they are in situations where they are expected to speak to someone, which makes talking impossible.
Selective mutism usually begins in early childhood when a child has developed their ability to speak. It can persist into adulthood if not treated. Identifying selective mutism as early as possible is key, as it can lead to social anxiety, low self-esteem and frustration if left untreated.
The disorder affects roughly 1 in 140 young people. It can happen to any child or young person.
Support strategies for parents, carers and teachers include the small steps therapy program which works towards the child/young person feeling more comfortable speaking with others. This can be discussed with the relevant health professional supporting your child/young person.
People around the child or young person can also do a lot to help – for example, by taking off the pressure to speak at school or at home. Support for parents and teachers is therefore very important.
- Wait 5 seconds: Pausing without repeating the question or letting anyone answer for a child is a good rule of thumb. It also helps the child learn to manage their anxiety.
- Praise: Use general praise not necessarily related to speaking in order to reduce attention drawn to the child’s speaking.
- Avoid direct questions: reduce the pressure on children to speak by avoiding using direct questions.
- Reduce use of questions: Instead use comments for example “You’re drawing a flower” or “I see you’re pointing to the picture in the book.” This helps convey interest in what the child is doing and is a good technique to fall back on when she is being nonverbal.
- Use of commenting in general is useful as it gives an opportunity for the child to join in when they feel comfortable to.