When not speaking is more than just being shy.
As a Child Psychologist it is fairly typical that during a clinic day I see one or more children for support in relation to anxiety, including social anxiety and separation anxiety. Less commonly I work with children with a type of anxiety disorder that looks like social anxiety, but is uniquely different. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer has perfectly developed communication skills, however when placed in certain social environments they are unable to speak. When I say unable, the reason for this is that in this situation their freeze response is activated, and it literally renders them mute! Completely unable to speak or communicate verbally. Even non-verbal strategies such as nodding can be difficult. Whilst social phobia is characterised by a fear of judgement by others (and typically a “flight” response), selective mutism is driven by fear of embarrassment. The types of thoughts that drive these feelings are “my voice sounds funny”, “I’ll say the wrong thing” and, “people will make me talk more”.
The good news is that there are effective treatments which can be provided by a Child Psychologist, to help kids overcome this fear.
Helpful tips for parents/carers/teachers:
1) Do not put pressure on your child to speak. They are in freeze mode and do not have the ability to move through this on their own. Psychological support is a must.
2) If the child does speak, do not provide over the top praise! This can often scare the child back into silence.
3) Parents and educators will be heavily involved in supporting skills in confident speaking. Expect to work with the child regularly during the week.
4) Rewards will play a huge part in helping your child feel safe enough to speak.
5) Individual play dates in a safe environment, with trusted peers can help in the initial stages of building confidence. Talk to your child about who they might like to play with and where.
If you have a child who communicates effectively and appropriately at home (in fact they might be the loudest in the house) but who “clams up” in certain social environments or when unfamiliar people drop by, they may be experiencing selective mutism. The good news is that with help from a child psychologist, your child can overcome their fears and become a more confident social communicator.