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The Shy Child – Is it Normal or Selective Mutism?

Shy Toddler
“Would you like to have cookie?” asks the friendly sales assistant at the grocery store to the five-year-old Ryan and wants to give him a cookie.

Many parents are fearful of situation like that because they never know if their offspring will give an answer, if he will take the cookie and say ‘thanks’. Then most of the kids are shy and many parents explain it with selective mutism without knowing that being shy as a child is rooted in the evolution. So don’t worry immediately!

Then did you know that …

  • Only in the age of seven to eight months can children distinguish and interpret sensations and therefore can’t make a difference between known, unknown and risks. The result is a fear of strangers.
  • Most of the children are shy – more or less. They lose the shyness mostly in the age of 15 months.
  • Children are shyer with men than women, more with bearded than shaved men, and more with adults than kids.

But when little Ryan from the introduction is totally petrified, isn’t nodding, isn’t shaking his head or not saying anything while staring on the floor, while his mom has to give the answer for him after an awkward silence even though he can talk – actually pretty a lot at home – but not with foreigners, it could be that Ryan belongs to the children who suffer from selective mutism.

Two to seven kids out of 100 are sufferers and remain totally quiet in special situations, especially when related with strangers but also with teachers, neighbors or even grandparents who don’t visit the children regularly.

What is typical for this Complete Silence?Young Girl with Arms Crossed
Kids are usually completely silent in special situations, usually in a strange environment with unfamiliar people. At home, they chatter happily, ask many questions and sometimes even have the big word. But as soon as they leave the familiar surroundings like going to the kindergarten, to school or to the playground, you won’t hear one word of them. But not only that, they are blocked and totally physically tense and avoid any eye contact.

Just a Bad Behavior?
Many outsiders see this remaining in silence often as ‘bad behavior’. But children don’t voluntarily decide when and to whom they want to talk since the refusal to speak is neither conscious nor deliberate.

The causes can be totally diverse from child to child but it plays often along with multilingualism, language impairment or a familial predisposition while traumatic situations or mistakes in raising the child from the side of the parents are rarely the reasons. And to accuse a child that it doesn’t talk will make the situation just worse.

But How Can I Make my Child Speak?
That the child speaks is at the beginning not even the most important thing. First it is necessarily to build up trust and to strengthen the child. It is important to focus on the strengths and abilities of a child and not to focus first on the difficulty to speak.

You can also work with behavioral strategies like playing role games with facial expressions or doing sounds because it helps the child to establish when it first builds the ability for nonverbal communication. Then you can train to speak. And don’t expect from your child to say whole sentences. Already one word is a triumph.
Mother and Daughter
You can for example send your child to get a cookie the next time by himself or herself, so it may start to talk even though it may takes some time.

And when it doesn’t work right away, don’t give up immediately, then patience is the most important thing you need with a child that has selective mutism, then the golden rule is never to force your child to speak.

Does my Child Need a Therapy?
If your child remains silent in special situation for more than four weeks, you should definitely visit your pediatrician and see if your child needs a speech therapy since this mutism falls under a language development delay.

For further information please visit www.selectivemutims.org.

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