8 Myths About Selective Mutism

Health Writer

Did you know that selective mutism is a type of anxiety disorder? Selective mutism (SM) is when children do not speak in certain situations, usually social situations such as school, day care or other public places. They do speak in places where they feel relaxed, usually at home. Children with SM may be misdiagnosed with autism, a communication disorder or another developmental disorder. It is, however, an anxiety disorder.

Myth: Children with selective mutism have been traumatized or abused.

A big difference between mutism because of trauma or abuse and selective mutism is that children who become mute after a trauma are usually mute in all situations. On the other hand, children with selective mutism generally don’t speak in social situations but in places where they are comfortable they do speak.

Myth: Children with selective mutism are just shy and will grow out of it.

There is a difference between shyness and anxiety. Children with selective mutism might want to speak but are unable to do so. They might feel like the words get stuck in their throat and won’t come out. Anxiety disorders go beyond shyness.

Myth: Children with selective mutism are being defiant or choosing not to talk.

Children with selective mutism can’t talk in certain situations. They become so anxious, they are unable to talk. It is not defiance or a choice.

Myth: Selective mutism is extremely rare.

Studies show a wide range of prevalence rates: from as low at 0.08 to almost 2 percent of children having symptoms of SM. Some experts believe these figures are low because of lack of awareness and misdiagnosis with autism or labeled as shy.

Myth: Selective mutism can’t be treated.

Years ago, it was thought that SM was caused by either an overprotective or distant mother. However, it is now considered an anxiety disorder and treating it as such has improved outcomes. Treatment normally includes treatment for anxiety, setting reasonable expectations for communication, educating other caregivers and teachers about approaches to communication and allowing your child to face fears slowly and safely.

Myth: Children with selective mutism use their silence as a form of manipulation.

This goes along with the myth that children with SM choose not to talk. This is not a choice nor is it a form of manipulation. Just as a person who has a fear of dogs isn’t trying to manipulate others, a child who has a fear of speaking isn’t trying to manipulate others.

Myth: Families of children with selective mutism are dysfunctional.

Along with the myth that all children with SM have experienced trauma or abuse, all families of children with SM are not dysfunctional. Some studies have shown that there is a high incidence of anxiety disorders in other family members, this correlation does not point to dysfunction but rather that anxiety disorders run in families.

Myth: Demanding children speak is the best way to treat selective mutism.

Demanding children with SM to speak can be very damaging. Treatment for SM, just like for other forms of anxiety, should be a gradual facing of fears. If your child only speaks in front of you and your partner, you can slowly begin introducing new people, by bringing one person into the room and allowing your child time to adjust. A slow progression gives your child the confidence, a demand will make your child feel attacked and can increase anxiety levels.

For more information on childhood anxiety:

Is it Normal Childhood Fears or is it an Anxiety Disorder?

Social Anxiety in Children

Separation Anxiety

Signs of Anxiety in Children

Back to School Anxiety