Misunderstood Silence: Selective Mutism In Children


Emoticon posing like “three monkeys”

At the age of four, Majid was known as the child who never spoke in school. He could speak clearly at home, but he was completely mute in school. Although he obeyed teachers instructions, he never answered any questions verbally. In a society where adults expect prompt answers from children, it didn’t take long for Majid to be marked as the teachers nightmare. His classmates called him “dumb.” Older kids dismissed him as “weird.” Despite all the name-calling, Majid kept completely mute in school. Initially he was described as very shy, but as months rolled by, people steered their thoughts towards thinking otherwise. No one could fathom how it was possible for Majid to speak articulately to his family members when they picked him from school, and never spoke to anyone else.

Majid’s case was not in isolation. It could be likened to that of another girl called Maya. She was born several years before Majid. At eight years, she was raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend. When she reported it, the boyfriend was found guilty of sexually abusing her. Soon after the trial, he was murdered. The girl blamed herself so much for his death, that she didn’t speak for five years. Yes, the late Maya Angelou kept mute as a result of the trauma she experienced.

Interestingly, Maya and Majid have more than the letter ‘M’ in common. They both had Selective Mutism.

Science Aspects…

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that causes a child who speaks normally, to be mute in social situations. Reported to start prior to the age of five, selective mutism becomes obvious when a child goes into school. Children with selective mutism are initially described as very shy. They would speak to family members and close friends, and shut down with others. Although it is predominant in children whose parents are inherently disposed to anxiety, other factors can also contribute to it. They are; difficulties processing sensory information, hearing impairments, language disorders and psychological trauma (Maya). These cause anxieties which in turn make children  keep mute in situations where they are expected to talk.

In countries where selective mutism is recognised, it is usually diagnosed by qualified child mental health professionals, who follow specific guidelines to make a diagnosis. Treatment include Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Play Therapy. These treatments are geared towards reducing the anxieties that inhibit the child from speaking in certain settings. Without focusing on speaking itself, children are supported in taking step by step approaches towards alleviating their fears.

It’s worth noting that children with selective mutism feel frustrated and ashamed about their condition. Therefore, labelling them as insolent and defiant only serves to exacerbate their anxieties. One can only imagine Majid’s thoughts when teachers and pupils misunderstood him. He was later found to have anxieties linked to language problems. He spoke his native language at home, and found it difficult to process English Language which was spoken in school. It is also important to know that although selective mutism is prevalent in children, some adults also have the condition. It has been linked to soldiers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

My thoughts

Always pay attention to words unspoken especially when it comes to children. Look beyond insolence and think about why a child keeps mute in certain situations. Everybody can communicate. All we need to do is pick the right medium to aid our listening skills.


“I don’t Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (Maya Angelou)

Selective Mutism (NHS Choices)

Selective Mutism (Great Ormond Street Hospital)

Image from: gozen.com