Don't push silent child to speak

Child Life

September 29, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My 4-year-old talks all the time at home, but when she's at preschool or church or anywhere else, she never says a single word. What can I do?

-- U.M.,

Raleigh, N.C.

The two most important things to do are stop pushing the child to talk and seek help from a professional who has experience with this condition.

A child who talks freely at home but refuses to speak in public is called a selective mute. It's a serious condition that can persist for years, and the exact cause is not known.

"It's very muddied," says Robert Thompson, a professor of speech-language pathology at Northeastern State University in

Tahlequah, Okla.

"It's not caused by bad parenting or trauma," says Thompson, who has treated more than 200 children who are selective mutes. "Some have suggested that it is an anxiety condition, and there are certainly anxiety factors in it. But it is not classified as an anxiety disorder."

Experts don't know how many children suffer from the condition. Selective mutism used to be considered rare, but Thompson says many children are either not diagnosed or misdiagnosed because so few professionals know anything about the disorder.

Treatment for selective mutism (also called elective mutism) involves play therapy and sometimes medication typically used to treat depression.

The most important intervention with young children is for everyone who interacts with the child to halt all pressure to try to get the child to talk.

"This involves any effort by all people to reason, threaten, bribe or trick the child into talking," Thompson says. "This approach must be adopted by everyone who comes into contact with the child. This type of attention just reinforces the problem."

Selective mutism goes way beyond shyness. To be diagnosed, the condition must persist for at least 30 days in a setting where the child goes routinely.

"Selective mutism typically shows up when the child starts school or preschool," says Louise Zingeser, director of the speech-language pathology branch of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

"These children tend to be very controlling and anxious," Thompson says. "They like to do things the way they want, and they resist change."

Information gathered by the Selective Mutism Foundation, a nonprofit parents' support group in Sunrise, Fla., tends to suggest that the condition may be hereditary, says co-founder Sue Newman.

"We have heard from hundreds of families who say someone else in the family has problems with anxiety disorders, social phobias or extreme shyness," Newman says. "So far we have found about two dozen identical twins, and in every case, both twins have it."

Newman's own identical twin daughters, now 15, still don't talk in public.

"There are so many misconceptions," Newman says. "Parents are told that the children will be fine, they're just shy. A lot of people think the children are just doing this to be stubborn. A lot of professionals just assume that you as a parent have done something to the child to make them this way."

When Newman has talked about the condition with her daughters, they tell her they find itupsetting. "They tell me they wonder why they were born this way, and they wish they could talk in public," Newman says.

It's crucial for parents to try to get help from someone who has experience with selective mutism, Newman says. One approach to contact children's hospitals and medical centers connected with universities.

"Most of the families we've heard from feel they have been tortured by psychologists," Newman says. "Someone who doesn't know anything about this can do more harm than good."

For a free brochure on selective mutism, send a business-size envelope with two stamps attached to Selective Mutism Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 450632, Sunrise, Fla. 33345.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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