Supporting children who have anxiety around talking
Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder, where children can talk freely in some situations (e.g. at home) and are unable to talk in others (e.g. at school or to people they do not know). Selective Mutism is much more than shyness. A shy child may be quiet in certain situations but a child with Selective Mutism is terrified, frozen and unable to speak.
Selective Mutism is still often misunderstood and people mistakenly believe that the child or young person is choosing not to speak. Many children with SM would love to be able to speak freely all the time but their anxiety is so high they are unable to do so.
SM is still relatively rare but it is believed that approximately 1 in 140 children are affected by it. With early intervention, prognosis is good although some children do grow into adults with SM. If there are concerns about a child not speaking in certain situations, it is important to monitor them and seek appropriate professional help, to ensure better chances of good outcomes.
Identifying Selective Mutism
Signs that a child may have Selective Mutism:
- They are able to speak freely in certain situations and unable to do so in others
- This pattern is consistent and has persisted for more than 1 month (2 months if they have just started a new setting)
If you think your child may have SM it is important to help them to feel relaxed and to not put pressure on them to talk.
If you are unsure, or you are concerned about your child’s talking you should consult a Speech and Language Therapist (or other professional with knowledge and experience of SM e.g. an Educational Psychologist).
How to help:
It can be useful to comment instead of asking a question. This reduces pressure and allows opportunity for them to respond without making them feel they have failed if they are unable to answer. For example, if the child is drawing a picture, instead of asking ‘what are you drawing?’ you could say something like ‘that’s a colourful picture, I can’t wait to see what it is!’
If your child is able to talk in the same situation sometimes but not at other times, or if it appears to be dependent on their mood it may not be SM.