Children with Selective Mutism

Children with Selective Mutism need empathic support

Children with selective mutism are physically capable of speaking, but do not speak in specific situations or to specific people.

For more information on Selective Mutism and how it presents in children, read this article:

Selective Mutism (SM) is a debilitating disorder and may have a very negative impact on a child’s daily functioning in social settings.  It is vital that children with Selective Mutism receive therapeutic intervention and often their extreme anxiety needs to be treated medically.  But in addition to this there are some things that adults working with children with SM can do to help support them.

Below are some tips to help guide those working with children with Selective Mutism:

  • It is very important to keep in mind that Selective Mutism is not a choice, but stems from a very deep seated fear of being ridiculed or rejected during social interactions.
  • For children with SM, speaking is hard.  When you notice a child with SM clamming up, try not to ask them questions but rather just chat to them in general – sharing things about yourself and your day without expecting a response from them.
  • When questioning is necessary, try not to ask Open ended questions as these usually require a child to formulate long or detailed answers.  Whenever possible, rather ask closed ended questions which only requires the child to answer with a short one-word answer.  For instance, instead of asking: “What did you think about our trip to the Zoo today, Andrew?” Rather ask: “Did you enjoy our trip to the Zoo today, Andrew?”.  Or instead of asking “Whose lunchboxes are these, rather approach the child directly and ask “Which lunchbox is yours, Andrew – the green one or the blue one?”
  • Children with Selective Mutism are extremely sensitive to being teased or ridiculed.  It is very important that teachers and other adults try to look out for situations in which this might happen and to pre-empt it.  Try to resolve the situation by displaying empathy and support for the child.  For instance, one could say: “Oh goodness, I noticed you just tripped on the carpet.  It can look so funny when that happens, I remember when it happened to me last week.   Are you okay? “ and then addressing the class “Remember class, it is very important that we always help to look after each other.  When someone trips, we have to see whether we can help them up”.
  • It is important that children know there is an expectation for them to talk in social situations, but that we do not put pressure on a child in this regard.  For instance, on the way to school a parent may encourage the child to talk to their teacher by saying things like “It would be good if you could greet your teacher today when you get to school” but DO NOT put pressure on the child once they arrive at the school by saying: “Come now, greet your teacher”.  If the child found the task difficult, discuss it with them afterwards and say things like: “It’s okay if you weren’t able to greet your teacher today.  We’ll try again tomorrow”.
  • Never, ever bribe a child to speak by promising them rewards.  This puts enormous pressure on a child and makes them feel that they have failed when they are not able to speak in social situations.
  • Give the child time to speak.  Children with Selective Mutism often take a while to respond to questions (this is usually because they are scraping all their courage together to speak while trying to suppress their anxiety).  Always wait a few seconds after you have asked a question in order to give the child a chance to answer.
  • Be comfortable to sit in silence with a child with Selective Mutism.  Non-verbal communication and joint attention to a task can do a lot to gain a child’s trust and to help them feel comfortable.
  • Where possible, prepare others beforehand for the fact that the child finds it difficult to speak in social situations and explain that the child is not being rude or defiant when they do not greet others or say “please” or “thank you”.
  • Prepare the child as far as possible for what to expect.  Selective Mutism is a symptom of a much larger phenomenon of Social Anxiety.  Children feel uncomfortable in social situations, even though they have a great need for social interaction and recognition.  When things change to quickly and children with SM do not know what to expect it may throw them off completely.  Children with SM generally do not like surprises.  Prepare the child by saying things like: “Now remember as soon as we have finished our lunch tomorrow, we will all go to assembly together to listen to the choir sing.  We will all sit together and I will be right there is any of you need anything”.  

For more resources, check out:

Selective Mutism Support SA


Selective Mutism South Africa