Myths About Selective Mutism

In Blog, Communication, Selective Mutism by Julie

October is Selective Mutism Awareness Month. Selective Mutism (SM) is a phobia of talking.

It is an anxiety disorder that results in the child or young person being unable to speak in certain situations (e.g. at school) even though they are able to talk freely in other settings (e.g. at home with their family).

Selective Mutism is often misunderstood and it’s important that we challenge these misconceptions in order to ensure the young person receives the correct intervention. To raise awareness and challenge some of these misconceptions, I’ve outlined some common myths below.

Myth #1 – The child or young person is choosing not to talk – FALSE

In fact, the opposite is true. Selective Mutism is a phobia which means that in certain situations the child experiences such high anxiety that they are not able to speak. Many people with SM describe a tightness in their throat which prevents them being able to use their voice.

The word ‘Selective’ does not mean that they are selecting where they speak, it means that the mutism is ‘specific’ to certain situations. Selective Mutism is NOT a choice.

Myth #2 – The child is just shy or quiet– FALSE

A shy and quiet child presents very differently to a child with SM. Shy children can usually be encouraged to join in once they’ve settled into a new situation but a child with SM will be frozen with fear. You can often see the transition in a child from when they are in a comfortable situation and something changes e.g. they are talking to their parent and a stranger enters the room – the child may go tense and their facial expression changes.

Myth #3 – The child must have a language difficulty – FALSE

Although it is possible that a child may have some difficulties with speech and language skills alongside their SM, many children have typically developing language. SM is not caused by other speech and language difficulties; it is a phobia of talking in certain situations.

Myth #4 – if I bribe the child with a reward they will talk to me – FALSE

This can often make the child feel worse. If adults say you can have a sticker/chocolate/reward if you talk to your teacher/answer the register etc., they will then feel that they have failed when their phobia leaves them unable to do what has been requested. In addition, to feeling like they’ve let you down, they may also be disappointed to have missed out on the reward they would have received if they had been able to speak. It is much more helpful to let them know you understand that they find talking difficult and praise them for things they are able to do.

How you can help a child with SM:

  • Don’t ask the child direct questions. Instead, make comments about what is happening so that they feel included without any pressure to speak. For example, instead of asking them how they are feeling, you could comment ‘you look happy playing with the bricks’ etc. You can also make comments about what they are doing, ‘that looks like a lovely picture, I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be’ – this takes the pressure off and also provides space if the child does feel able to comment themselves.
  • Ensure that the child knows that you do not expect them to talk – you can talk to them about it so they know that you understand it is difficult for them and that they can talk when they feel ready to do so. This is important for children to feel relaxed in the environment and also so they do not feel like they are letting anyone down.
  • Build general confidence and celebrate the child’s strengths.

If you suspect a child has SM it’s important to support them as soon as possible. Left untreated, SM can have a huge impact on the child’s daily life, self-esteem and mental health. It’s never too late to support someone with SM, and the earlier they get support the sooner their phobia can be treated.