Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



The Sound Of Silence

C.B. Gavant

Being quiet is the only way some little children know how to scream for help. A closer look at selective mutism — the causes, the hardships, and how parents can help their kids find their voice again.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

At four and a half years old, Adina* is a friendly — if shy — preschooler. When she’s at home, she loves to color, play with her dolls, and “read” to her baby brother. In school, however, things are entirely different. Whenever anyone speaks to Adina, the only response they receive is a shake of the head or a nod. Adina won’t participate in show-and-tell, and she sits alone at circle time, never opening her mouth to daven, sing, or shout out answers like the other little girls. She won’t even whisper. In fact, Adina’s teachers and classmates have never once heard her voice.

Adina is a selective mute. She can speak normally and does so freely at home, where she feels safe and protected. But in the classroom setting, she retreats into a shell and refuses to verbally communicate, no matter how hard her teachers try to draw her out.

Behind the Silence

The American Psychiatric Journal defines selective mutism as a child’s inability to speak in a social setting, generally a classroom, despite a clear ability to speak in familiar places, such as the home. To be diagnosed with selective mutism, specialists look for a pattern of speechlessness that lasts for more than one month, not including the child’s first month in school.

The disorder can have a range of manifestations: from mild cases, where children won’t talk to teachers but have no problem chatting with peers, to extremely severe cases, where a child will speak only to immediate family members and not communicate with others at all, even through nonverbal means such as gestures or facial expressions.

Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that selective mutism is more than just extreme shyness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists selective mutism as an anxiety disorder, and most mental health professionals recommend treatment accordingly.

“Most cases of selective mutism are not the result of a single traumatic event, but rather are the manifestation of a chronic pattern of anxiety,” writes Dr. Robert L. Schum, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“Research shows that most children with selective mutism were anxious in social situations from an early age,” notes Dr. Richard Gallagher, co-director of the selective mutism program at the New York University Child Study Center, in an article he wrote about the disorder. “Their history often includes a toddler period of appropriate language development at home, but clingy, dependent behavior in the presence of unfamiliar or infrequently encountered people … For children for whom English is a second language, case studies usually indicate that the children were not comfortable speaking with people in their first language either.”

Thirty percent of selective mutes may also have a language delay that contributes to the problem, notes Ruth Perednik, a Jerusalem-based psychologist who heads a selective mutism clinic and has published a manual on the disorder called Still Waters Run Deep. Due to their inability to express themselves clearly, these children close up when they enter the school setting.

Usually, selective mutism develops because a child doesn’t have the skills to cope with his or her fears. But there are cases where a child who successfully speaks in school may gradually withdraw as a result of ridicule or excessive teasing. Interestingly, girls are more likely to develop selective mutism than boys, and children with an overprotective or shy parent are also predisposed to this condition.

 

To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
Evolution vs. Revolution
Shoshana Friedman I call it the “what happened to my magazine?” response
Up, Up, and Away
Rabbi Moshe Grylak What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day
Where Do You Come From?
Yonoson Rosenblum Could they be IDF officers with no Jewish knowledge?
Heaven Help Us
Eytan Kobre Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe
Work/Life Solutions with Chedva Kleinhandler
Moe Mernick “Failures are our compass to success”
An Un-Scientific Survey
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily
Out of Anger
Jacob L. Freedman How Angry Lawyer was finally able to calm down
5 Things You Didn’t Know about…Yitzy Bald
Riki Goldstein He composed his first melody at eight years old
When the Floodgates of Song Open, You’re Never Too Old
Riki Goldstein Chazzan Pinchas Wolf was unknown until three years ago
Who Helped Advance These Popular Entertainers?
Riki Goldstein Unsung deeds that boosted performers into the limelight
Your Task? Ask
Faigy Peritzman A tangible legacy I want to pass on to my children
Are You There?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned
A Peace of a Whole
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt Love shalom more than you love being right
Seminary Applications
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, as told to Ariella Schiller It’s just as hard for seminaries to reject you