Does your son or daughter not speak? Do you think he or she may have a language problem? Find out how to detect selective mutism and ways to help a child who suffers from it.
Selective mutism is a disorder characterized by the loss of speech or verbal aptitude, even though the person can converse. It affects children and develops during their preschool stage.
The daily life of children can be full of endless socialization situations, moments in which it is not always easy to relate to the environment or to other people. Any kind of criticism, misunderstanding, or mockery can lead to a lack of attention or even to the child stopping talking, which in the most extreme cases can become a disorder. Many people do not detect this type of selective mutism in time and end up thinking that it is a case of extreme shyness. In this article, we will see what is selective mutism, what are the causes, the symptoms and how to treat this selective silence.
What is selective mutism?
This childhood disorder leads to the child losing speech in certain contexts, although he/she can speak in others, usually at home or with his/her parents, where he/she feels safe. Infantile selective mutism usually results from the child’s exposure to a situation of stress, nervousness, or anxiety. Their response to such stimuli is based on silence and mutism, two singularities that sometimes are also accompanied by a certain shyness that increases in such circumstances. Not saying a word does not mean that the child has lost his communicative skills, but that he cannot make them effective.
The modifications of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association include for the first time selective mutism as a childhood anxiety disorder. Thus we can say that mutism and its meaning are closely related to a type of psychological condition that can be seen through this attitude by children.
Selective mutism or extreme shyness?
For parents, it is sometimes difficult to know what the differences between selective mutism and extreme shyness are. While shy children find it difficult to talk to strangers or in new environments, they get used to it and feel more comfortable as the hours go by. In addition, they answer simple questions, even if they find it difficult to overcome their shyness.
When children have infantile mutism, this type of situation generates great social anxiety and they are not silent because they do not want to talk, do not want to bother, or because they are embarrassed to interact, but because they do not feel capable of doing so. This leads them to isolate themselves and avoid interactions with other people. In this way, we can find that where a 3-year-old child does not speak or a 4-year-old child does not speak (which are common ages to suffer from it), we may be in front of a child suffering from selective mutism.
What is not selective mutism?
Besides shyness, infantile mutism can be confused with other problems, and it can even be thought that this disorder is influenced by the child’s will when this is not the case. To dispel myths, the Child Mind Institute of the United States clarifies the doubts about what selective mutism is not.
There is a misconception that children who do not speak have been traumatized or abused. Although the cause may be post-traumatic stress disorder, there is no evidence that the two are always related.
They do not have speech or language learning problems, although many may have them after these episodes.
It comes from anxiety and social inhibition, but not from anger or manipulation. It is not rebellion.
This disorder has nothing to do with autism, although in some behaviors they may resemble each other. Children with an autism spectrum disorder lack social and communicative skills, and those affected by selective mutism have them but cannot carry them out.
Causes of selective mutism in children
Once the medical cause has been ruled out, it should be clarified that the causes of selective mutism are psychological because of anxiety related to social phobia. The child is terrified of being judged and experiences stage fright when meeting other people or in places where he/she does not feel safe, such as in the classroom. It has also been observed that there is a genetic predisposition since experts say that it is more likely to suffer from this disorder if the parents have suffered from anxiety when they were young. Although this affection for infantile mutism is usually quite rare to suffer from, there are still not enough studies that fully understand it. According to some research, selective mutism in children may be related to the following causes:
Sometimes when there is selective mutism in children, it may indicate that our child is suffering from an anxiety disorder. This type of illness is difficult to detect in children because many people do not expect that child can suffer from it.
In the same way as with anxiety, infantile mutism and the fading of stimulating speech in children may show depression.
- Developmental delays
Sometimes this type of selective autism may not be related to a psychological problem, but to a delay in the development of our children. In these cases, children can only be helped by encouraging their progress but without pressuring them.
- Language problems
On certain occasions when suffering from elective mutism, there is the possibility that the person may have some problems with language. In this way, this extreme shyness comes from the embarrassment that children feel to speak in front of others.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
There is some evidence linking selective mutism in children with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Panic disorder
Irrational fear in children is very difficult to detect since in most cases it is a normal concern in children. But when this panic is obsessive and happens regularly, it can lead to a disorder. So much so that sometimes elective mutism can show this type of disease.
These are the main causes for which there may be a case of infantile mutism. However, there are other more minor reasons a child may suffer from these cases of selective autism.
Symptoms of this disorder
To talk about a real disorder, selective mutism must fulfill some symptoms that we detail below:
It must last at least one month, although this can be prolonged as the school year progresses.
They can talk and even be totally sociable at home but completely mute in the classroom, with other children, or with strangers.
Not being able to communicate causes those to isolate themselves and not follow learning in school properly, and hindering other social skills.
They appear fearful and paralyzed and may express this with facial expressions or avoiding looking into the eyes, for example. Some children cannot even transmit with non-verbal language.
If you detect your child is suffering from many of these symptoms of selective mutism, it is vital to consult a professional psychologist to help him/her as soon as possible.
How to treat children’s selective mutism
There are some methods with which we can help to overcome the selective mutism that a child may suffer from. Among the most recommended by psychologists, we can find the following.
- Family support
To treat infantile mutism, family support is very important, involving also the child’s closest environment, always avoiding overprotection. It is necessary to offer the child the safest possible environment, with love and understanding towards his situation. Likewise, it is necessary to be serene and trust the child and resolving his situation, which will make him feel calmer and less pressured.
- Do not force him
It is counterproductive to demand that they talk, to constantly insist on questions about their problem, or to compare them with other children. This will only increase anxiety and prolong the disorder. In order to make progress in the improvement of infantile selective mutism, we can try to accompany the child to talk to other children, starting the communication with the adult; another option is to plan activities in which interaction with other people is required in a soft and little invasive way, as it can be at home, where the child feels protected. In this way, selective mutism and its treatment are closely related to establishing a good environment for the development of children.
- Join efforts with teachers
In these cases, in order to know how to treat selective mutism, it is very important to actively communicate with the classroom and the teacher to coordinate the way to act. The Teaching Federation of CCOO of Andalusia issued a communique on Intervention in cases of selective mutism in children in which educators are explained how to act. In it, it is emphasized to promote group dynamics, assign small responsibilities to the child, propose activities involving physical contact, with non-verbal communication and sounds, and apply relaxation techniques, among others.
- Choose activities that are adapted to their abilities.
One of the first mistakes that parents can make is to encourage speech through activities that are complicated or according to the level ‘they should have’. In order to leave behind this selective mutism, it is essential to adapt the activities so that children feel comfortable in them. That they are at their level or that they are suitable for their linguistic abilities.
If all these tips for selective mutism and its treatment are not enough, it is important, in order not to worsen the situation, to have the help of a professional, expert in child or adolescent psychology or even a psychiatrist who will know how to apply the appropriate psychological intervention that each patient needs.
Games to improve children’s selective mutism
Some examples of games that can improve selective mutism:
Games that do not involve having conversations such as Parcheesi or goose or drawing can be a good interaction among the little ones.
Incorporate mime games or games in which they have to respond with sounds such as clapping or gestures. Games that require talking in the ear can also be useful.
Another technique used is based on the use of audio and video recording methods, allowing children to observe themselves and become reacquainted with their speech.
Performing drama activities in which they have to learn a script and not use their own words. Masked speech games, in which they hide behind puppets or characters, can also work.
Finally, it should be noted that each step taken by the child in his selective mutism must be reinforced with patience and a good attitude. However, each child is different, so in case of any doubt about the process, it is better to ask a professional.
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