What is selective mutism and how does it affect children?

What is Selective Mutism?

In certain social situations some children stop talking, although they are able to communicate in other contexts. We explain what causes selective mutism, a disorder associated with anxiety, and how it is treated.

Selective mutism is a child and adolescent disorder that manifests itself as a problem of speech inhibition without any organic cause that explains it, and with intact verbal communication skills. Selective mutism appears in children –usually in the preschool stage– who have the ability to speak and show it in safe contexts for them, with people they trust.

Selective mutism can be confused with extreme shyness, but it is much more than that, it is a disorder associated with anxiety that can become very limiting and affect different areas of the child’s life.

How to check if it’s selective mutism?

It is very important to define selective mutism and differentiate it from other speech disorders or problems . In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, selective mutism is defined as “the persistent inability to speak or respond to others in a specific social situation, despite doing so without problems in other situations.” According to the criteria included in said manual, to be considered selective mutism, the following characteristics must be met :

  • The continued inability to speak in specific social situations (where you are expected to speak, for example at school) even though you do speak in other situations.
  • Lack of speaking affects their school performance or social communication.
  • The selective inhibition of speech problems must last for at least a month (it does not occur only during the first few weeks of school).
  • The impossibility of speaking is not due to a lack of knowledge of the language necessary to function in the social situation that he/she faces, nor to the fact that he/she is not comfortable with said language.
  • The child’s disturbance is not better explained by having a communication disorder (eg, stuttering ), and does not occur solely during the course of a pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia , or other mental disorder.

Profile of the child with selective mutism: how it affects them in their lives

Selective mutism is a disorder that can be very limiting and negatively interfere in the affected person’s life, in addition to having important consequences in their development and in their future. 

Children with selective mutism are often shy , insecure , and prone to anxiety . They are children who communicate and speak perfectly in environments and situations in which they feel comfortable and safe, usually with close family members

The problem appears in other social contexts where they become blocked and lose the ability to speak. Selective mutism is a complex disorder, an intense anxiety response that controls the child and even blocks him. It is not that the minor chooses not to speak to avoid relating, but that he cannot speak because he is blocked; her fear of him is so great that it overcomes him and prevents him from communicating.

Blocking often makes the situation worse, because the child feels negatively watched and judged, and their fears and anxiety are heightened. Mutism can be confused with hostility, lack of interest in communication, etc., which worsens social contacts. Children with selective mutism are often misunderstood , often judged and labeled, their social skills are poor , and their self- esteem suffers .

If not treated properly, this speech disorder can affect the development of the child, and leave consequences that will manifest themselves in later stages

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