Here’s why I’m so quiet – An introduction to selective mutism

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Selective Mutism is a little known, but surprisingly common condition that affects about 1 in 140 children between ages 4-7. This condition isn’t limited to children in this age group – but this is the age when it usually appears. Treatment at an early age is recommended, as without it a child is unlikely to simply ‘outgrow’ the condition, but instead may develop further anxiety, social and emotional problems and depression. I was diagnosed with selective mutism as a four year old child. I explore many aspects of the condition – and my journey through it – in this blog.

Why are you so quiet?

I remember the question from my childhood – over and over and over. It is a question that hurt me beyond explanation. My only response would be wide eyes and the blinking back of tears. Perhaps the biting of my lip. ‘Why am I so quiet?’ Um, I’m not … I just can’t talk the way most people can.

Couldn’t. Today is a little different. But I’m not talking about today right now. This is how I used to feel …

Every day I had more words that I wanted to say. Every day they collected alongside my dam of emotions – just waiting for something or someone to help them out. It was like my voice box was frozen, I felt like there was a wall in my throat. Try talking with a tennis ball stuck in your throat, and perhaps you might understand.

I was never quiet. I simply found it very difficult to talk.

Where does selective mutism come from?

When I was four years old I was diagnosed with a little known condition called Voluntary Mutism. It was assumed that I was choosing not to speak in certain situations, because I spoke fluently at home with my family – but would not (could not) speak elsewhere. It wasn’t until 1994 that the name changed to Selective Mutism – as it became understood that people with this condition are not choosing to not talk. We are physically unable to speak in certain situations. My Mum has often told me how I would play happily with other children – there simply weren’t any words involved in my interaction with them.

Rewind a few years, to a time when I was two years old. It was 1981. There was an economic crisis at the time; stress and worry affected many – and my family was certainly not immune! My brother was born, and four months later, my family and I moved to the big, strange city of Johannesburg. In our first six months, we moved house five times. Everyone handles stress differently. My brother let us know about it. I kept it inside. 

We all handle stress and express anxiety in our own way

It is easy to make assumptions about where a condition may have emerged from. Perhaps there was one specific incident. Probably it was an accumulation. I have always been extremely sensitive to my surroundings – I can understand that my surroundings in 1981 would not have made sense to my two year old mind.

We are all different. Everyone is blessed with different challenges and experiences in their lives. Everyone reacts a little differently to everyone else when faced with their particular challenges and experiences. I don’t believe there is ever a ‘one size fits all’ explanation – but it is understood that selective mutism is an anxiety disorder.

A family history of anxiety, or exposure to anxiety and stress at a young age are probably going to increase the odds of developing selective mutism. However, it is not an exact science – and I am certainly not qualified to say too much about what might cause selective mutism. All I can tell is my own experience. I will reveal more of this over the coming month.

Love and acceptance

For now, I will leave you with a simple piece of advice. If I have learnt anything through my life it is that Love and acceptance are the most precious gifts you can give to any child. Let them be who they are right now. Let the person they are right now help them grow into who they will become. Sometimes we all go through challenging times – it is what helps us to grow and develop as people. 

We cannot tell a child how they should behave or react in any given moment. When we do, we stifle their natural expression. If a child’s natural expression right now is frozen, we need to help them to find it. Telling a child what we want to see or hear will not help them to find their words. Helping them to feel accepted and loved will.

If you know a child, teen or adult with selective mutism, I hope I can help you in some way. Perhaps it will be nice to know you are not alone. I wish you luck in your journey – and hope you can grow through it as much as I have!

In this blog, among other things, I explore selective mutism in depth from my own experience. There is very little currently understood about selective mutism – and although I am not qualified to provide answers, I can certainly provide the perspective of someone who felt different, alone and misunderstood for a big chunk of my life. Today, these feelings (and many more!) have developed and I have been able to embrace the strengths that they contained.

Please comment below if you, too, have been able to grow as a person from a challenge you have faced in your life.

If you like my thoughts and ideas, maybe you might like JANX, journals for children and adults to help relieve anxiety. Please have a look at my current campaign to fund their production …

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  • This is soul touching! Thank you so much for sharing your story. Looking forward to read your next articles 🙂 <3

    • Kat

      I’m so pleased this has touched you M.C Simon! Thanks for your comment 😉

  • Paola

    Thank you, Kat, for your perspective on sm: I’ve always wondered how these children perceive their inability to speak. In fact, my daughter was a sm child and now I’m working to help parents to help their children.
    http://www.aimuse.it

    • Kat

      How cool, Paola – I wish I could read your website! I love that your experience has lead to you helping others too. x
      I’ll be exploring much more over the next month re. selective mutism, particularly my perceptions of it in this first week. I always learn so much about myself when I write!

  • jennifer

    thanks for sharing!…looking forward to reading more!

    • Kat

      Thanks Jennifer!

  • Deb Simpson

    My 7 year old son is being assessed for sm. our journey is just beginning, so looking forward to having some insight from someone who knows exactly what he’s going through 🙂 x

    • Kat

      Thanks for your comment Deb, It’s so great to feel my words offer some insight for others – and good luck to you and your son!

      • Deb Simpson

        Thanks Kat 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your truth Kathryn! So fascinating to learn more about the challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve over come them.
    Looking forward to February’s posts! X

    • Kat

      Thanks Catherine – and you are welcome! It has felt good to commit to sharing in this way, I’m looking forward to February’s posts too! x

  • Becci palmer

    I feel this may be me. I was incredibly shy and quiet as a child. I now find social situations increasingly difficult and often find myself stumbling over my words.

    • Kat

      Hi Becci, Thank you for your comment! I found it really empowering when I found out about selective mutism a few years ago (although I’d had a diagnosis as a child, I never knew about it). I’d always felt different to other ‘shy’ children – when I found out that I’d had sm, I finally understood why. Perhaps you may have been too – little was known about it when I was young – it is still relatively unknown today even, and many people do go undiagnosed 🙁 Ultimately though, the best thing I have done is to accept myself as I am – regardless of any label or condition.

      Re. socialising, over the past few years, I have gradually admitted to myself that I don’t like a lot of social situations. I had always felt like I ‘should’ enjoy them, so I used to pretend to, and I’d feel obliged to stick around as long as I could, or try to mingle even though I felt incredibly awkward. Now I honour myself much more. Sometimes I will go for a short time, sometimes I will find it better than I expected and sometimes I will choose to spend some time alone instead. I have realised that I need time alone to recharge both before and after being around a lot of people. It is so important that you work out what you need, so you don’t drain yourself. Good luck xx

  • Fabrizia

    Thanks thanks and thanks for let us know your story. My daughter is 4 years old and she has selective mutisme. I hope one day we can say everyone :”here is my voice!”

    • Kat

      You are more than welcome Fabrizia! It feels great to share my story – and I really hope it gives encouragement to people like you who are experiencing selective mutism in your lives too! x

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  • Pam McLellan

    Thank you so much for writing these personal articles!! They are so inspiring to me as I suffer with anxiety and depression and was a very shy child growing up…my daughter was diagnosed with SM two years ago at 7 years old and I struggle daily with how to help her . Our family is very fortunate that she has lots of support at school and reading your articles gives me hope!!

    • Kat

      Thank you for your comment Pam – one of my motivations is that I may give others in similar situations hope. I’m so pleased to hear that I have! My heart goes out to all parents of sm children – I wish you luck, Love and strength on your journey! x

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  • Sarah

    I have a daughter that is 4 years old and showing signs of selective mutism. She is so happy and at home I cannot get her to stop talking but she has started preschool this year and has not said a word in her class all year. I cannot wait to hear all you advice in helping my daughter along threw this…

    • Kat

      Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment! It must be difficult to see your daughter change so much outside of home – but great that she is so happy and talkative at home … she’s at the perfect age to help before her sm becomes more entrenched. Best of luck to you both!

  • Salena

    This article is absolutely beautiful and very encouraging. I have a 10 year old daughter who was diagnosed with SM at 6. It has been a rough 4 years but with the knowledge I seek every day and the help from her school, she has come a long way. Far from completely recovered but not where she used to be. I celebrate every step forward she makes and let her know how proud we are. We do let her be her and never expect anything more. Thank you for speaking on behalf of all the SM children out there. It definitely gives me hope.

    • Kat

      Thank you for your lovely comment Salena! And well done to you and your daughter for all those steps forward – and your acceptance and celebration! x

  • Nancy T

    I happened upon your website via a Selective Mutism FB page I’m a part of. My oldest daughter – 8 was diagnosed with SM at 6 although even under 1 year of age, I could see SM – thinking she was extremely shy at the time. I look forward to reading about your experiences and hopefully I’ll learn about supporting my daughter more in her journey to finding her voice.

    • Kat

      Thank you Nancy – I imagine sm gets mistaken for shyness a lot! Good luck to you and your daughter – I hope my posts can help your journey x

  • Thank you for sharing!! Would love to share your story and articles on Selective Mutism with my patients!

    • Kat

      Awesome Elisa, thank you! I’d love you to share my stories!!

  • sammy

    This is great for me thank you for sharing as my daughter has SM she is only 5 and is making progress but not in school

    • Kat

      How awesome that she’s making progress Sammy xx

  • Becky Dempsey

    Hi. My son has SM. He described it as feeling like there was a shield. He had a wonderful Kindergarten teacher and when we realized what was going on and acknowledged what he was going through, he broke out of his shell. He still gets a “deer in the headlight” look once in awhile when he’s put on the spot or if something has derailed his plans/ideas or he feels like he’s failed at something.

    • Kat

      How awesome that he was able to express that so young – and then feel acknowledged enough to speak again. Awesome!

  • L

    I have been reading articles and books about selective mutism for a month or two, ever since I quite accidently came across a book in the supermarket, The Girl Without a Voice. After reading just the book jacket, I knew: this is my grand-daughter (or could be). But of all the things I’ve read this article touched me the most. Thank you. I am looking forward to more.

    • Kat

      Thank you for your lovely comment L! I read ‘The Girl Without a Voice’ last year … I did like it, but it was a little different to my experience as she went through a horrible trauma and I (and most sm sufferers) didn’t. Good luck with your grand daughter xx

  • Tamra

    I can’t wait to read more about your journey. My 7 & 6 year olds have SM (& my 3 year old is displaying traits) and as a Mum it’s heartbreaking to watch my beautiful, outgoing, confident and talkative children (at home) start to shrink inside themselves in public, become shy, uncommunicative, avoid eye contact and most of all be unable to speak when I know there is so much they have to say. Having said that they have come a long way since their first diagnosis at 5 & 4, and I just hope that life starts to get a little easier for them with each passing year.

  • Maryann

    Thank You for posting about Sm…I have a son 11 yrs old he wasn’t diagnosed by a doctor but his speech teacher brought this to my attention in First grade….would love to chat some more.He has done so well in the years has his moments and situations…would love to chat more.

    • Kat

      Hi Maryann – and you are welcome … I have written quite a few other posts on sm since this one now, feel free to look through the blog! Great to hear your son has been doing well – has he received any kind of treatment for his sm? Good luck!

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