Selective Mutism – often just called SM – is a severe anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak in social situations despite being completely able to talk. These children are typically chatterboxes at home and typically silent in public. They do not speak in social situations such as school classrooms or the playground, or with certain people, such as their teacher, sports coach or peers. It’s not that they won’t but rather they can’t. That’s what severe anxiety can do to a young child. SM interferes with social interactions and often interferes with educational achievement as well.
Their difficulty speaking is not from a lack of knowledge of the language, and is not due to being oppositional or traumatized. It’s due to anxiety getting in the way. Children with SM can literally go an entire school year not speaking in a school setting. Kids with SM typically also have some important relatives in their lives they do not talk to. They will dutifully nod or gesture to their doctors and dentists well-intentioned questions – but not verbally respond to them. When parents see their child awkwardly avoiding or in apparent emotional pain, they feel like they have no choice early on but to answer for them or to tell people they are “just shy.” We know these reactions are well-intentioned and we wish it were that simple! Shy kids warm up but kids with SM get deeper and deeper into the habit of not talking and can’t find their way out on their own.
Kids don’t just grow out of SM and families should definitely seek professional help early for best outcomes. Untreated, or even under-treated, early childhood anxiety disorders put kids at known risk for the development of other anxiety disorders and possible depression later on.