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Selective mutism – why some children don’t talk at school, with strangers, or in larger groups

There are many reasons that a child might not speak in certain situations. The perhaps most misunderstood reason is selective mutism. Selective mutism means that someone does not talk in certain situations while talking fluently in others. It isn’t to be confused with shyness or even social anxiety. There are many shy children, but less than one out of one hundred children suffer from selective mutism. While shy children also have difficulty talking to certain people, selective mutism means that the person is physically unable to get the words out. It doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t ever speak, hence the term “selective.” In fact, children with selective mutism are often very talkative at home or around trusted individuals. However, they might be completely silent at school or around people who they aren’t as close to.

As explained in this podcast, reasons for selective mutism vary and the research is still developing. However, it is usually grounded in anxiety. As with many disorders, children develop selective mutism through a combination of a genetic predisposition and their environment. For some, a scary event might trigger it, for some it might be moving to a new school, while for some it can appear to develop out of nowhere. The good thing is that selective mutism is treatable, and those suffering from it often learn to communicate with many people over time.

Identifying selective mutism can be difficult because some other diagnoses, such as autism and social anxiety, have similar symptoms. One way to identify selective mutism is if it appears to be severely limiting someone’s life or has the potential to limit one’s life in the future. If someone is shy, it won’t necessarily negatively affect their life, especially if you work on it. But selective mutism has the potential to severely hurt one’s social interactions and relationships if left untreated. This means that it’s always best to veer on the side of caution. By seeking help, a professional will be able to evaluate the situation and give their insight on how to best help your child. Don’t hesitate to contact us at Psykologiteamet and we would gladly help you with this process. You can also check out this blog post for more specific suggestions on how to help your child with selective mutism.

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