Selective Mutism in children

“Why is she just standing there by herself and not talking to anyone else, that’s so rude of her!”

“She doesn’t even acknowledge us, how rude!”

“It’s a part of our culture and religion to say salaam, she’s not a good Muslim because she doesn’t even do that! This is so disrespectful and rude!”

“You never come to social gatherings anymore, you’re trying to avoid us. I find this quite rude!”

The above assumptions have been made about my daughter and I, and nothing angers me more when I hear these accusations and being labelled as rude! What people don’t realize is that both my daughter and I are not “rude,” but we both have anxiety. More specifically, we both have an anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism where we have a fear of communicating in certain social settings. This is a real fear that we cannot control.

What is Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is a type of anxiety disorder that is usually inherited and something that starts in early childhood. It leaves people in a frozen state when placed in certain social settings, and even communicating with people you have known your entire life can be dreadful.

How Selective Mutism Affects People

I remember struggling to communicate with teachers, neighbours, and even certain family members, despite them being loving and caring individuals. There were times where I wanted to reach out to certain people in my life, but this disorder trapped me and I was unable to set myself free completely. You can read more about how if felt like for me to live with this condition here. 

Being Judged and Labelled and Its Negative Impact

Having Selective Mutism is painful enough, but what adds more fuel to the fire, is the assumptions people make about you. The lack of awareness, education, understanding, and empathy in regards to anxiety overall is dangerous. The real danger is when others isolate individuals with this disorder and make them feel ashamed for living with it.

Many labels were placed on me as a child with Selective Mutism and during that time I was unable to speak up and let others know that what they were saying was further damaging my already low self-esteem as a vulnerable child. I was seen as being purposely distant, cold, and rude.

Now, as an adult, I can see myself coping with this disorder (it took many years and lots of work to get here, and I’m still a work in progress), and I’m now able to use my social media platform to create awareness about this type of anxiety, however it still pains me to hear others call my daughter and others with this condition “rude.” 

Tips to help someone with Selective Mutism:

  1. Educate yourself on what SM (Selective Mutism) is by reading up on it (this article is a great starting point).
  2. Talk to people who have had this disorder; some of us are still unable to speak about it, but there are people who are learning to cope with this disorder and can share their experience with others, either through written or verbal communication. Ask them questions about how you can people with this SM.
  3. Don’t label and judge others who appear to be distant and non-verbal. Understand that these people may be suffering from a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.
  4. Be patient. This is key, as it often takes time for some of us to open up to others.
  5. Don’t take our lack of communication personally. Recognize that our lack of communication stems from anxiety and has nothing to do with you.
  6. Don’t pressure individuals with SM to speak, they will speak if they want to and when they feel ready to.
  7. Accept nods, eye contact, and smiles as a form of communication.
  8. Don’t shut people out of your life simply for the fact that they have SM. People with SM still want to be accepted and be a part of society. Although they may not attend all the events they are invited to, they still may want to attend a few, so always ask them and don’t assume that they will always reject an invitation.
  9. Smile and initiate the conversation. Often times, people with SM are hesitant to make the first move towards getting to know someone, but when someone reaches out to them with a smile and initiates the conversation, they are more likely to engage with that person.
  10. If you are a parent who has children with SM, please speak to a professional as soon as possible and get help for your children. I say soon as possible because the longer you wait to get help for your children, the more difficult it will be for them to cope with this disorder.
  11. If you are a teacher who has students with SM, work with their parents (and their therapist, if they have one) to come up with a way to make them feel comfortable within the school setting.
  12. Try to be empathetic and understand where that person with SM is coming from.
  13. Don’t make someone feel bad or guilty for their fear of speaking, as SM is something that is out of our control.

Moving Forward

Moving forward, I hope that we can discard the labels and implement strategies within our community to assist those who suffer from Selective Mutism. Furthermore, I hope that we can create awareness and recognize the signs of Selective Mutism in others, instead of judging someone for a disorder they have no control over. As a someone who has suffered from SM for over 20 years, and as a parent who has children that suffer from SM, my main goal is to start a conversation about this disorder and to find a way to include those who have SM into society and to make them feel understood and accepted.


2 comments on “Selective Mutism in Children”

  1. This is a beautifully written article. I had never heard of Selective Mutism so I’m grateful to learn this information in case I ever come across someone who has it. I have anxiety and although I’m able to speak I sometimes refrain from doing so because occasionally the words come out jumbled. Thanks for sharing this with others.

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