How To Support A Selective Mute Child

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When my family and I moved back to Illinois after a three year stay in Colorado, we needed to hunt for a new church. After settling on one, the kids got pretty comfortable going to their Sunday school class. They always had a smile on their face when we picked them up and seemed to have a fun time.

One Sunday the teacher asked me, “Does Ben know how to talk?”

I was floored by this question. Of course he does! He was 3.5-years-old at the time when she asked. He was a very verbal, expressive boy at home but apparently not at church.

I didn’t think much of it. The church was still fairly new at the time, maybe he was just shy.

Well, fast forward 8 months, same church, same Sunday school class for my son, same teachers, same kids. Still no talking.

Now I started to get a little concerned. I also started noticing more that he wouldn’t just stop talking at church but he wouldn’t around any new person, anyone he knew but hadn’t seen in a long time, social gatherings like family parties, play dates with new kids, etc.

I’m lucky to have two very close friends who are therapists. One is a developmental therapist. She was babysitting him for me one day and had to stop over at a friend’s house so she brought him with. Of course my son didn’t say a word when he was there. It was a new house with new people. My friend told me, “Oh he definitely has selective mutism.”

This was something I had never heard of before. I thought she was making it up. Turns out she wasn’t.

How to support a Selective Mute Child

The Selective Mute Diagnosis

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Selective Mutism falls within the category of anxiety disorders. Some of the diagnostic criteria for selective mutism, as cited in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, are:

-The child shows consistent failure to speak in specific social situations in which there is an expectation for speaking, despite speaking in other situations.
-The disturbance interferes with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
-The failure to speak is not attributable to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with the spoken language required in the social situation.

When my son entered preschool he didn’t utter a single word the entire school year. His teachers had never experienced this before. Assessing him was tricky. You can’t expect a child with selective mutism to tell you the letters of the alphabet or answer any simple question verbally.

However, it never affected him socially with the other kids. He was well loved by everyone. I will never forget when a little boy in his class asked me, “Why doesn’t he talk?”

When I asked my son why doesn’t he talk in school he responded, “I don’t want anyone to hear me.” The kids were very well aware that my son was different, but they loved him anyway. That’s the beauty of preschool innocence.

Nonverbal Communication and Whispering

ASHA states that children with selective mutism avoid initiating and participating in conversations. If they are able to express themselves, they may rely on gesturing, nodding, pointing, or whispering. They may have fears of being ignored, ridiculed, or harshly evaluated if they speak.

This is true for my son. He often used non-verbal communication in his pre-K classroom. He would point to things and nod or shake his head. Also, he would whisper only to my husband and I if we were in larger social gatherings.

I will always be grateful for my friend’s 13-year-old daughter who seemed to bond instantly with my son. She was one of the helpers in his Sunday school class. She never pressured him to say anything and, in time, he started whispering to her. This is a big deal to a selective mute. This meant he trusted her and his anxieties lessened around her.

Informing others

Selective mutism can be a challenge to explain to others. His teachers were so loving and very understanding of it and never pressured him to speak. That’s not always the case.

One of the pediatricians at a wellness visit kept saying to my son, “Use your words!”, and it only made my son that much more anxious.

I remember sending articles to a couple of my aunts to explain it because I didn’t want them thinking my son was rude at our next family event. They didn’t of course, but at least they were prepared and somewhat educated on the issue.

My tips on how to interact with a selective mute

1. Don’t ask them open-ended questions. Ask them yes or no questions instead so it gives them the option to communicate non-verbally by nodding or shaking their head.

2. Don’t pressure or bribe. This only feeds the anxiety. Don’t say things like, “If you tell me ____, I will give you ______.” You’ll just get blank stares, a pouty face and possibly some tears.

3. Approach them how you would with anyone else. A smile and greeting is fine, even if you don’t get a response from them. Hopefully they will become more comfortable with you and may start to communicate with you.

4. If they do start speaking to you, don’t make a big deal out of it. The less attention on their anxiety, the better.

Early Intervention

Early intervention is key to helping a child with selective mutism. My son has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for speech and social work. He started this before entering Kindergarten and it has helped him a lot. I also think we just lucked out with having the greatest Kindergarten teacher on the planet.

This year he speaks quietly in school to his teacher and classmates. He doesn’t always talk to other people in school or other places, so the anxiety is still there, but it’s getting better.

Selective Mutism certainly isn’t the end of the world, but anxiety isn’t pleasant to live with. It’s important to offer support to any child dealing with anxiety no matter what form it takes.

For more parenting tips and experiences, click here.


  1. I can imagine this can get tricky. My son has autism, and for him I’ve just been understanding. He has various quirks and I just have to tell people about them sometimes. My son also has an IEP.

  2. I love the way you’ve advocated for your son. So many people aren’t willing to stand up for their kids and to help them process the world in a way that feels safe. We’re currently navigating some school issues related to anxiety and so I know it can be challenging. Kudos to you mama! And kudos to your son for being brave in spite of his anxiety!

  3. This is very important to know! Thanks for the wonderful tips and advice that really help! I will definitely share this with others.

  4. I’ve seen children with this, although I didn’t realize it was a thing. I’ve noticed that giving them something to do, like color, or taking them to the toys and just sitting down and starting to play with a toy car or something makes them open up within a few minutes. I’ve definitely noticed the part you wrote about not pressuring them is critical.

  5. This is fascinating! Never heard of it, thank you for sharing! One of my 4 year old twins won’t speak when she’s angry or frustrated, which is super frustrating for me. Not sure she qualifies for this diagnosis but maybe these tips will help both of us!

  6. Thank you for sharing your son’s story and this information about selective mutism. It’s definitely not very common and most people don’t know much about it. I heard of it but I love your tips on how to communicate with a child who has selective mutism. It’s very helpful.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, it is so informative and helpful for understanding what someone might be experiencing. I love that you sent some information to your aunts ahead of time, what a great proactive idea!

  8. It is a great thing to support someone who has this. They really see and interact with the world a lot differently than we do.

  9. Supporting your kid and showing your love I think that can help to pass such tough moments easier. They appreciate it, even if, they do not show it all the times.

  10. This is great. My daughter is non-verbal. Not selectively but she has Autism and even if someday she does speak I’m sure there may be days where she just cannot communicate. It’s great to see ways to help support her too from this post.

  11. this is such a useful post.. while i did not know about this condition before, i do now thanks to you, and can now relate this to some kids i did know who might possibly have had this..
    thank you for sharing your story

  12. Thank you for sharing. It is so important to have resources like this available so people can educate themselves about how to respond to this kiddos.

  13. I like your tip about asking only “yes” and “no” questions.
    When I was going through this, in the late ’70’s, schools were still under the impression that “Elective Mutism”, as it was then known, was not only voluntary, but that it was a sign of defiance, that called for discipline.
    Once, a school official pointed to my mother, and said, “Who is this lady?”
    I shut down, and she kept prodding me. She tried some “yes” and “no” questions, but they were rigged. First she said, “Is she your Aunt?” I said “no”. Then “Is she your teacher?” “No.” Then, without pausing between the two choices, “Is she your mommy or your grandma?” Notice she rigged it so I would have to say “she’s my mother” rather than simply “yes”. That made me shut down. But I’m happy for Ben, I would never want to see any child wracked with anxiety be treated like they were being intentionally bad the way I was. And this post feels very vindicating for me.

    Thank you.


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