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What to do if your child has Selective Mutism

Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim

Selective Mutism is diagnosed when a child is not able to talk freely in one or more situations or with more than one group of people, for more than a couple of months.

Some temporary mutism can occur with children who are new to a language of instruction in school, say English, and become very quiet in school until they feel confident to use the new language. Or there may be other emotional or health reasons for stopping talking for a while. Again, in this case, the advice below applies.

Selective Mutism is a fairly rare condition in the UK, though I have become aware of a much larger number of children who have the condition here in UAE.

It is sometimes suggested that the condition may be caused by the sort of pressure that children, and little girls in particular face – as is the case in more traditional cultures, where the emphasis is on them being quiet and well behaved. Actually, girls are much more likely to have this difficulty than boys.

Twins with Selective Mutism

Interestingly, Selective Mutism is also relatively common among twins, and this is something I have seen here in UAE. Two girl twins I have worked with are both selectively mute whilst in school. Their mother told me she had heard them discuss and agree that they would not talk in school! One of these twins is much more withdrawn than the other, but both of them are responding well to the process of helping them to gain confidence in talking in school. I will write separately about how we - the SEN team in school - have been helping these two little girls.

Fascinatingly, twins are known to have particular closeness and may even have their own ‘language’ in which they communicate.

Recognise what Selective Mutism really is....

The biggest thing you can do to help your child, especially in the early stages, is for you to know that this is a phobia, a fear, much like fear of the dark, or of flying, and that such fears can be overcome with the right help.

Most parents react sympathetically if their child is afraid of the dark, for instance. Rather than telling their child not to be silly, and forcing him/her to deal with it, you would help the child and ease his or her fears until they can be overcome.

But with children who stop talking, adults, whether parents relatives or teachers, often press, or try to bribe or trick the child to talk. And sometimes even get a bit cross with them for being silly and shy.

Practical steps to tackle talking

Seek support wherever you can and agree on a plan of action with your school's Special Needs staff. This may involve getting external professional help as well from a Psychologist or Speech & Language Therapist. You can get more information on this website, take an online course, and join an online discussion group that is being set up, or contact me directly if you want more help.

1. Don't force the child to talk!

Be relaxed and patient with the child and show you are supporting her, keep her trust and confidence that you will help her. Do not insist on a verbal answer and do not try and get her to whisper to you.

If you are trying to talk with the child and they do not want to talk to you, here are some things you can do to help:

2. Give options for answering you

For example, using your hands or a clap/arm raise, she can indicate non-verbally if they prefer. Giving a choice of two or three responses can be easy too, for the child to indicate which one.

Don't accept another child answering for her: sometimes her friends can be quite overprotective!

3. Accept written or gestured responses to your comments

I often find that letting the child know that a written response is just fine will assure her and take the pressure off.

4. Reassure the child

Let her know you understand it is hard to talk sometimes, but you will help her in getting over this fear.

5. Assure guests in front of your child

Tell your guests or friends you meet that your daughter can talk just fine, but she does not always feel comfortable to talk, and that she is not being rude.

6. Encourage her friendship with quieter children

Sometimes children with Selective Mutism feel more at east with other children of a quieter temperament - this can also help your child to gain confidence

I hope you found these tips useful! Have you tried anything else that works? Let me know in the comments below.




Specialist Speech & Language Therapist

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