Selective Mutism In Children: What Is It & How Can You Help Your Child

Last Update on April 25, 2023 : Published on May 6, 2021
Selective Mutism In Children

Does your child not speak much or at all in a social setting? Does your child feel uncomfortable being in a social gathering? There’s a possibility that your child is not just shy. Where a shy child may be able to function in a certain setting, a child with selective mutism cannot.

Selective mutism is an often overlooked and misunderstood disorder that may look a lot like “shyness” but in reality, it is not just shyness but an anxiety disorder.

In this blog, I’ll help you understand what selective mutism in children is, its symptoms, causes, and how you can help your child cope with selective mutism.

What Is Selective Mutism?

What Is Selective Mutism

Selective mutism, a rare and often undiagnosed anxiety disorder can be described as “an inability to speak in a social setting such as school or any social gatherings”. Less than 1% of children are diagnosed with selective mutism.

If selective mutism in children is left undiagnosed, it can cause emotional and mental consequences such as low academic performance, poor self-esteem, social isolation, loneliness, as well as social anxiety at a later age.

What does selective mutism in children look like?

A kid with this Selective mutism may not be able to speak freely in certain social settings such as in school but they might be able to communicate with their parents or siblings at home, and/or with someone they feel comfortable and safe with. Although, in some serious cases, a child may not be able to communicate at home either.

Selective mutism often develops in children around the age of 5-7 or under. A child with selective mutism usually finds themselves getting anxious over the prospect of even greeting others. Because of this inability to interact with others, their social life may be affected – even as adults.

Symptoms Of Selective Mutism

Symptoms Of Selective Mutism

Here are the signs of selective mutism you need to look out for in your child. Selective mutism symptoms can be:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Appearing nervous, embarrassed, or fidgety
  • Lack of expression in social situations
  • Not being able to speak in social situations
  • Using non-verbal communication cues to express themselves (i.e nodding or pointing)
  • Being shy or socially withdrawn

These actions are mostly self-protective but adults i.e. parents, siblings, or teachers may interpret them as an act of defiance. If your child shows symptoms and signs of selective mutism, contact a professional child psychologist for help.

Also Read: What Is Defensive Behavior? Signs, Types & Impact Of Defensiveness

Diagnosing Selective Mutism

Diagnosing Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is a type of childhood anxiety disorder and it wasn’t defined as a disorder until the DSM-5 edition (published 2013). Before it was defined as selective mutism, the disorder was known as “Elective mutism”.

The main criteria for diagnosing selective mutism in children is the failure to speak socially/publically. Other than this, a child can be diagnosed with selective mutism if they show the following signs:

  • Symptoms being present in the child for at least a month (not only the first month of school)
  • The child must be able to understand spoken language and also has the ability to speak normally in non-social settings
  • The child’s academic performance and social functioning is affected by their lack of speech

Also Read: An Overview of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: DSM-5

Causes Of Selective Mutism

Causes Of Selective Mutism

Because this disorder is a rare anxiety disorder, its risk factors are not clearly defined. However, it can be said that selective mutism can be a result of childhood abuse or trauma. Other selective mutism causes can be:

  • Shyness
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Parents diagnosed with social anxiety disorder

Other mental health disorder that can co-occur with selective mutism can be:

Treatment For Selective Mutism

Treatment For Selective Mutism

Similar to other childhood anxiety disorders, selective mutism can be treated with the help of psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both. Selective mutism can be easily treated if diagnosed early but if the diagnosis is caught later in life, the treatment may not be as easy.

1. Psychotherapy

One of the common treatments for selective mutism in children is behavioral management therapy. These therapy programs usually involve approaches like desensitization and positive reinforcements that can be applied at home as well as in school under the supervision of a professional child psychologist.

2. Medication

A professional child psychologist may also prescribe medication for children with selective mutism, particularly to children with severe or chronic symptoms. Please consult with a child psychiatrist before giving your child any anxiety medication.

How Can You Help Your Child Cope with Selective Mutism?

How Can You Help Your Child Cope

Other than professional treatment, you, as a parent/guardian, can also help your child learn how to cope and manage their condition. You can try:

1. Spread awareness: It is easy to get frustrated with a child who refuses to acknowledge a conversation verbally. You can help by spreading awareness about your child’s disorder and sharing your concerns with their teacher and counselors.

2. Focus on their comfort: Forcing your child to engage in social activities or hobbies that make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe is not the right way to help. Instead, focus on your child’s comfort and encourage them to participate in activities that don’t require spoken conversation such as reading, art, dancing, etc.

3. Avoid punishment: If your child is refusing to speak then avoid punishing them. Instead, reward them if they speak but if they don’t, then don’t punish them. A child will not overcome their fear of speaking if you punish them.

4. Don’t pressure them: Acceptance and involvement from parents, teachers, or guardians are important but trying to pressure the child to speak is not okay. Putting the child under pressure will increase their anxiety and stress levels making it more challenging to speak. Be supportive and show acceptance, but don’t pressure the child.

5. Set realistic goals: Start with baby steps and go slow. Gently push them towards progress but remember to set realistic goals. Setting goals that are beyond the reach of the child isn’t beneficial. Your child will make progress when they are ready and not before that.

Also Read: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) For Kids

Final Thoughts

Selective mutism in children is often misunderstood as shyness or defiance and is left undiagnosed. It is important to understand that a child with selective mutism finds it difficult to speak or interact with others, including family members.

Make sure that you make your child feel comfortable and safe enough at home so they can communicate with you. Dealing with selective mutism in children is not easy and can be challenging but with the help of a professional child psychologist, it can be manageable.

I hope this article helped you understand what selective mutism is in children, its symptoms, causes, the diagnosis criteria, its treatment, and how you, as a parent/teacher/guardian, can help your child cope and deal with selective mutism.

For more on anxiety disorders in children, you can visit our website or write to us at

Be kind and supportive.

Stay safe.

About The Author

Swarnakshi Sharma
Swarnakshi Sharma

Swarnakshi is a content writer at Calm sage, who believes in a healthier lifestyle for mind and body. A fighter and survivor of depression, she strives to reach and help spread awareness on ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues. A spiritual person at heart, she believes in destiny and the power of Self. She is an avid reader and writer and likes to spend her free time baking and learning about world cultures.

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