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Selective mutism: How to encourage verbal interaction

girl reading a book

I remember taking my daughter to my first baseball game of the fall season. Other kids were there, including four-year-old Natalie, daughter of my teammate, John Corbett. All the kids immediately began playing with each other, except Natalie, who did her own thing. I can recall John saying, “I wish Natalie would play with the other kids, but she is just so shy.”

Being shy around strangers is nothing out of the ordinary for kids. However, when Natalie began junior kindergarten, John realized there might be more to it than just shyness. “She didn’t say anything on the first day. Or the second. Or the third,” says John. “We just chalked it up to the fact that she was shy, and hadn’t been exposed to a classroom setting through preschool or daycare. She would eventually warm up, right? After a couple of weeks, and then a month of not talking at school, we knew that something wasn’t right. Keep in mind, when she was home, we couldn’t get her to stop talking.”

It turns out, Natalie was suffering from a childhood anxiety disorder called selective mutism. According to Dr. Annie Simpson, a registered psychologist and director at Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic in Vancouver, signs of selective mutism are commonly shown at the preschool age.

“This is often the age when they are taking their first ‘steps’ into the world—a music class, preschool or other situations where they are expected to talk,” says Dr. Simpson. “We think that children develop selective mutism from a combination of genetic vulnerability and how the world interacts with that child. Specifically, children with selective mutism may have genes that predispose them to an anxiety disorder, and they may be behaviourally inhibited.”

This doesn’t mean that every kid who shys away from a new friend is a selective mute. Dr. Simpson says to watch for these signs:

  • Your child speaks in certain settings but stops talking, either completely or almost completely, when other people are around even after they’ve warmed up to a new situation or person.
  • Looks frozen or paralyzed (like a “deer in the headlights”) or even angry when asked questions by strangers or when she feels uncomfortable.
  • Uses gestures like pointing, nodding or funny facial expressions to get her needs met despite knowing how to talk.

Natalie, thanks to a game of “telephone” at Sparks, discovered that whispering in the ear of a friend or teacher is a great option for her. John now tells all teachers, coaches and activity leaders that if they’d like to communicate with Natalie, ask for a whisper—she will oblige after she has earned their trust.

“Natalie doesn’t want to be like this, but she can’t help it,” says John. “Imagine how scary it is for a child. Every new encounter, new class, new teacher, new extracurricular activity, new coach—she is scared to death of new people and new situations. It’s a helpless feeling for a parent.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Winter 2017.

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