Fear of Talking (Selective Mutism)

What is selective mutism?

Selective mutism is a severe fear that keeps your child from speaking in public. If your child has this disorder, she fears that if she says anything when other people are around, she will look foolish and be embarrassed. The fear stops your child from doing things like making friends, playing, and doing well in school.

Selective mutism is more than being shy. Shy children usually relax around others after a few minutes. A child with selective mutism is always tense and cannot speak in some situations.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of this disorder is not known.

  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. A child with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • A child is more likely to have this disorder if other family members have had problems with selective mutism, social anxiety, or other anxiety disorders. It is not known if this is caused by genes passed from parent to child. It is not caused by abuse or trauma.

The disorder is more common in girls than boys. It often starts before age 5 but may not be noticed until your child starts school.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Not speaking in social situations where talking is expected (such as school or play groups), but being able to talk at home to family members or friends
  • Refusals by your child to take part in school or social activities

You may be confused by your child’s behavior because your child may be very outgoing at home. She may talk easily on the phone to others but not be able to talk to them face to face.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your provider will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms.

You may want to contact a mental health therapist who specializes in working with children and teens. The therapist will ask questions, watch your child, and may do some tests.

How is it treated?

There are several ways to treat selective mutism. The first step is usually to help you and your child learn about the disorder.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps your child learn what causes her to feel afraid to talk and how to control the fear of rejection. CBT might also include social skills training, role-playing, and relaxation methods.

Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERPT) helps your child face her fears. ERPT helps your child deal with her fears by exposing her to the things that she is afraid of and helping her practice new ways of responding. Your child learns ways to control her body’s response to anxiety, like breathing exercises.

Sometimes medicine may be used as well as therapy. Your child’s healthcare provider will work with you and your child to find the best medicine and dosage for your child. Your child may need to take more than one type of medicine.

How can I help my child?

  • Support your child. Let your child talk to you about her scary feelings. Your support and understanding can help your child deal with her fears.

    Let your child watch you talking in a relaxed way in a lot of different situations, like with friends, at school events, and while ordering at restaurants. Try to avoid putting pressure on your child to speak in order to get something she wants. Do not say “You can’t have it unless you say it first.” Praise your child for her efforts and for any improvements, however small.

    Help your child to speak where she is comfortable. Usually that means in small groups of people that your child knows. If your child is more comfortable at home, it may be helpful to invite friends over often to give your child more chances to talk with others.

  • Help your child learn ways to manage stress. Teach your child to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax–for example, by taking up a hobby, listening to music, playing, watching movies, or taking walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach your child to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your child’s healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.
  • Get emergency care if your child has ideas of suicide or harming others or themselves.
  • You can get more information from:
  • Selective Mutism Foundation
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-09
Last reviewed: 2013-05-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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