Selective mutism is a form of anxiety that usually occurs in children between the ages of 3-6. It can present itself as an accompanying symptom of social anxiety and social phobias, but also as a completely separate condition. You might not be aware, but selective mutism is actually considered a severe form of anxiety, due to the impact it can have a child’s development. Because it renders them unable to communicate in public – most often in the classroom – those who suffer from it are unable to assert themselves, define their boundaries and even get basic needs met.
The real problem with selective mutism is those behaviours carry over into adulthood if left untreated. This makes the ‘unlearning’ process even more challenging and forming interpersonal relationships extremely difficult. When a ‘mute’ individual is placed in a social setting where they perceive there is an expectation on them to speak, they experience what’s called a ‘freeze response.’ This isn’t the decision not to speak, but it is the inability to speak. It is panic – or to give further context, stage fright.
The onset of selective mutism usually starts around the ages of 2 and 4, and signs present when the child is first asked to interact with those they’re not familiar. This is the primary source of mute individual’s anxiety, as they’re often able to communicate freely with family members who provide a perceived sense of safety. The condition also tends to affect girls more so than it does boys. It is also common in those who’ve migrated and are now being asked to engage a learn a second language.
Aside from the clear sign of not wanting to engage with anyone one around them, there are other some other primary indicators that suggest mutism that include being:
- reluctant to engage with someone or maintain eye contact
- nervousness or acting slightly awkward
- clinging to someone they feel is safe
- stiff body language and poor co-ordination
- temper tantrums and showing aggression.
Selective mutism tends to be thought of as a phobia or the fear of speaking to certain people, but the reality is it can be much more complicated. In addition to the separation anxiety a child experiences when they’re away from their parents, they might have a speech disorder or trouble processing sensory information, which prompted their mutism. It could also be the result of PTSD-like symptoms if the child in question comes from a home where abuse is commonplace.
Treatment plans for selective mutism usually involve a combination of psychotherapy and medication, although going down a strictly psychotherapy route is often the first option. Given the prevalence of speech and language disorders that can occur, it’s also wise to have an assessment done to rule this out as a contributing factor.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is regarded as one of the best treatments for mutism in children, as it employs a wide range of interventions that look to address the anxiety and modify a child’s behaviour. This helps the child gradually become acclimatised to engage in communication more readily with others without the need to be prompted.