Doctor My Child Mina isn’t talking: Is she a Shy Child or Is It Selective Mutism?

Some children can feel so socially anxious they find it impossible to speak in specific social situations where speaking is expected.  This can be seen at school or kindergarten, even though they can speak in other situations such as at home or in small groups. These challenges can make it harder for a child to follow learning goals, express what they feel, or manage friendships. These difficulties can continue beyond the start of school or kinder term and can be confusing for teachers, parents, other children, and the child.  So, what can make things easier for Mina and any child facing such anxiety?

It is important for a child to feel they are not alone. It is a relief, especially for older children and adults to know that their difficulties have a name (selective mutism).  It is also reassuring that there is treatment and support for these issues.  For a young child they need to know that what is happening can happen to others too, and that things will get much easier for them. Being calm and having an informed approach will allow a child to feel more confident.

Selective mutism seems to be more common in children from bilingual backgrounds and in children who move to an area with a different spoken language.  It also appears to be more common in girls than in boys.

Let your child know you understand it is difficult for them to talk and you can try and help with their feelings when they try to speak. Children with selective mutism do try and speak but can often ‘freeze’ or find that the words seem to get stuck and make them appear unable to express themselves. Even very young children can feel better when we accept their problems and can get more worried if it is ignored, or ‘hushed-up’ or interpreted as just ‘shyness’.

Many children can find it very hard when they are forced to talk before they are ready.  They can get the message from other adults and peers, who mean well, that talking is easy.  They can be sensitive that they are the only one in their kinder, or school who finds this as difficult as they do. Younger children can get very confused about what is happening to them.

Helping to acknowledge the problem can be a big relief, and builds trust in you and your ideas about how to help. It makes the situation less frightening and this can be the start of rebuilding a child’s confidence to begin talking or communicating.  When a child says they do not want to talk, they mean they do not want to feel nervous when they talk. Let your child know that you can help make things better. Focus less on talking, and more on having fun.  Let a child know there is no need for them to speak until they are happy and ready to do so. We let a child know they can take time to have fun and feel completely comfortable.

 This will allow a child to gradually to do more and more until they are doing all the things that other children do.  Even children as young as four years old can feel better with these supports. The way to overcome speech anxiety is to remove any pressure to talk.  Talking to professionals such as a paediatrician and psychologist can provide support for your child and help before the difficulties become more of a learnt habit in different settings.  Remember, the sooner we can get a child to talk, the better!

 Written by: Dr Raj Khillan, Paediatrician and Dr Malini Singh, Psychologist

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 Dr Raj Khillan, MBBS, MD, FRCPCH ( UK), FRACP

Senior Paediatrician-Sunshine Hospital and Mercy hospital

Director, Western Specialist Centre,

131 Main Road West, St Albans-3021

289 Princess Hwy, Werribee-3030

Tel; 03 9367 8626; 97419300 Fax 03 9364 1542


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Dr Malini Singh

Dr Malini Singh, Grad Dip Ed (Primary), BPsych (Hons, Class I),

PhD (Psychopharmacology), MAPS

Change 4life Psychology

136 Derrimut Road

Hoppers Crossing VIC 3029

Ph:   (03) 8742 4302

Fax: (03) 8742 4304