Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism – when a child who can talk chooses not to in given situations – is relatively rare, but demands good planning and patience from parents, teachers and psychologists working together. Here, I consider one way of understanding which needs a child may be attempting to meet through this behaviour.

A teacher asked me for some ideas for a boy who has recently come into her class and who will not speak in school. I have worked with about half a dozen of these children over the years and as a result have had to research various theories and interventions. I was updating my knowledge of research in this area and researchers in this field are still coming up with the same general conclusions: it is most frequently a social anxiety issue and recommended interventions fall into the categories of anxiety reduction  and systematic desensitisation. Most researchers say that the condition will not sort itself out without carefully constructed plans.

Given my rule of trying to understand where the behaviour is coming from before jumping into a plan, I started thinking about what needs might be driving this behaviour of choosing not to speak. Since a number of the children I have come across using selective mutism have parents who did the same themselves as children, we have 2 options: either it is a genetically transmitted behaviour, or else it is  a learned behaviour and the child has either seen this in use or has had enough reinforcement of the behaviour to keep it going. I tend towards the second theory, so I needed to think of times when we use selective mutism in everyday life. The first example that came to me was the use of mutism to “make a point” or show defiance. Historically, this has been used by husbands and wives who have been offended by their partners and want to “make a point”. The behaviour is only effective if it is noticed and attracts enough discomfort from the recipient to lead to reflection on their part and perhaps an apology or about-turn. The need driving this mutism is usually in the category of power – the behaviour is an attempt to win the argument or seek control over the other person’s behaviour. It may also be a method employed to “get your own way” in which case, it may be driven by the need for freedom, or choice.

Another use of selective mutism for the gain of power is what is sometimes called “sending someone to Coventry”, where there is an agreement from one or more people not to speak directly to a given person, in order to punish or coerce them to change their behaviour, or merely to give the instigator a sense of personal power over the victim.

We may use selective mutism in a more passive way when we refrain from saying something when we had the chance. Think of the times when you ask yourself, or you are asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?” Perhaps you didn’t understand an instruction; you witnessed an injustice; you had a good idea you kept to yourself; or you were asked to do something you didn’t want to do, but didn’t voice an objection. Thinking of possible responses to the question, “Why didn’t you say anything?” can give some insight into the child using selective mutism.

Possible answers could include, “I wasn’t sure how people would respond”, “I was worried that I was the only person thinking that”, “I thought that she might notice that I hadn’t contributed and come and ask me afterwards”, “I wasn’t that interested”, “I didn’t care”, and so on.

If you can start to make a hypothesis about the need that is driving the mutism, your intervention is more likely to be successful than just starting to eradicate the behaviour by external control.

A quick reminder of the 5 basic needs is a good starting point:

  • Love and Belonging: is the behaviour an attempt to draw attention and care from those around him or her? If child is new to the environment or has not got any close friendships, this may well be worth a try.
  • Power and self-worth: might they be feeling that they have little control over other parts of their life at present? Are they failing to achieve and feel competent in school?
  • Fun: Does their life lack enjoyment? Are they interested in the work and activities available to them or do they perceive these things as boring/impersonal?
  • Freedom: Is the child stuck in a role that they need help to free themselves from? Do they have enough choice in their life? Are they trying to distract adults from another problem they have?
  • Survival: Perhaps the child is in danger or perceives themselves to be in danger. Have they suffered abuse or experienced violence that still affects them? Are they unwell? All these needs are potentially behind the selective mutism. The more that can be found out about the child’s basic needs, the more fitting the plan can be.

The term “anxiety” can be related to any of the above needs, and the nature of the anxiety is the puzzle that you need to address here.

It is no surprise to learn that the word “anxiety” and “anger” come from the same Latin root angere: to choke or cause distress. Anxiety and anger come from a similar origin: the perception that one’s needs are not being met. Most children have learnt by the time that they reach school age that anger does not get them a great response from adults. In many cases it leads to punishment and for some children, violence from a parent. The child using selective mutism may have found a new way to express anger that attracts a more positive response from the adults around. But understanding the relationship between anger and anxiety can help to explain  why both can lead to frustration, anger and a sense of powerlessness in the adult.

To sum up today’s reflections on selective mutism, I would say that the search to understand and help a child to meet their basic physical and psychological needs is the aim of all good social and emotional education, but is truly essential when unusual behaviours such as selective mutism are employed by a child. I would encourage any teacher faced with this type of behaviour to talk first to parents to explore their perceptions of what is going on, and to collaborate with an educational psychologist who can help you to assess needs and assist with making and monitoring a plan.

Now read: The Beautiful School Rules

4 comments to Selective Mutism

  • kate

    None of those reasons are even close to be the result of my daughters sm. I learned that my husband was the same way when he was a child. He still is not very social, but would talk to everyone now. He remembers getting better during high school. I do have to say that I am leaning on the genetic reason. At age 2 I realized that my child is quiet in a way that you can’t describe by being shy. At age 7 she is still like this and it hurts me to see that she is socially not engaged but deep inside wants to.

    • geraldine

      Hi Kate,
      Many thanks for your comment.
      Regarding the genetic component. What has been found in some people with selective mutism is that they are very sensitive to an awareness of possible threats in their environment, and have a high level of self-talk and imagination, which can turn out to be a real strength. Psychologists would say that the behaviour we call ‘selective mutism’ is learnt rather than inherited, but that a person’s temperament does have a strong inherited element.
      Is your daughter unhappy? What does your husband say about his ‘quiet years’?

  • British

    I read the first sentence and didn’t want to read further. I had selective mutism as a child and I didn’t choose not to talk, I couldn’t. I was so petrified in social situations outside of my family that no matter how hard I tried and wanted to talk nothing would come out. I can remember my heart beating out of my chest, sweating and being stiff as a board. I believe this disorder is inherited for my father had it and he died before I was born. My mother noticed signs of anxiety as an infant with me being clingy and crying a lot. I suffered dearly because no one really knew what was wrong with me, so I didn’t receive help and now I have chronic depression. I developed some coping skills on my own. There was so many things that I missed out on because of my selective mutism.

    • geraldine

      Thank you so very much for writing to me about your own situation as a child – it is so useful to get an “insider view” of this disturbing condition. How distressing that must have been for you. Looking back, can you think of what helped or might have helped you at the time, or lessons we might learn from your experience? Geraldine

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