Are you shy of speaking to strangers?

Selective mutism : Dumb with fear

At first the parents didn't notice anything. Little Anna spoke normally at home, and for three and a half years she even had an amazing vocabulary. At first, the teachers weren't surprised by the quiet kindergarten child. Especially well-protected mothers' boys and daughters are often very shy for weeks and months in unfamiliar surroundings until they finally thaw. But Anna had been here for almost six months and was still as dumb as a fish. Neither the teachers nor the other children had ever heard her voice. When she was badly injured one day, tears ran silently down her face.

The mother was amazed when the director of the kindergarten asked her about her mute daughter. At home she talked like a book. The only thing that struck me was that she was quite scared and immediately fled to the nursery when the doorbell rang. The pediatrician reassured the parents, spoke of a "defiant phase" and said: "That is growing out." A mistake: When Anna came to school, she did not speak a word there either, but did everything else, wrote and did the math quite well.

The children choose who to talk to

A school psychologist was the first to speak of "mutism" (from the Latin mutus = mute), more precisely: of "selective mutism". Because with this mental disorder, children are almost never completely silent; rather, they choose those with whom they talk and those with whom they remain silent. Not on purpose, not out of obstinacy or out of extreme, but not yet pathological shyness, but because of a mental blockage. You are under a spell, the parents found out. Because now that they knew the name of the disorder, they could find out more from books and on the Internet: Selective mutism is the constant silence of children towards everyone, except for their closest relatives. If left untreated, this often lasts beyond puberty.

These children can speak very well, but only to a few people they know. Some talk to parents and siblings, but not even to visiting grandparents. Others also talk to a few friends, but only when no one sees it.

Mutism has different varieties and degrees. There are children who shy away from any form of communication with strangers. They lower their heads and freeze when spoken to. Others make themselves intelligible even without words, with nods or shakes of the head, gestures or even single sounds, later with notes or tapes.

Mutism is an anxiety disorder

Mutistic children are mostly of normal intelligence, some even do above average in school if the teachers are understanding and do not grade the oral.

More girls are affected than boys (3: 2). The disorder usually begins in the fourth year of life (entry into kindergarten) or towards the end of the sixth (start of school). It's about as common as autism. The estimates vary between one and seven children in 1,000.

Scientists interpret the mutism as an anxiety disorder. Why are children silent? The child and adolescent psychotherapist Nitza Katz-Bernstein, who has set up a counseling and treatment center at the University of Dortmund, writes in a specialist book out of an inability to overcome strangeness. They build a protective wall of silence against the outside world, which is perceived as threatening.

Overprotective mothers are a risk factor

Often affected are migrant children who are torn out of their familiar surroundings and cannot cope with the language and culture shock. Risk factors are also overprotective mothers, frequent changes of caregivers or places of residence, overly silent parents, little external contact with the family, sudden separation from parents (e.g. longer hospital stays) and other traumatic events.

Selective mutism is not primarily a speech disorder. It is wrong to keep asking children to speak directly; In the experience of the experts, this achieves exactly the opposite. Rather, what is needed are “confidence-building measures”, encouragement, and strengthening of self-confidence. Therapy must therefore by no means aim solely at getting the child to speak.

The most important thing is a good relationship with a child psychotherapist. Finding a suitable one is difficult, however. Katz-Bernstein names the necessary quality criteria, for example professional maturity, experience with treating mutism, flexible and individual application of various methods, imparting security, motivating the child to cooperate, cooperation with parents, educators and teachers. Patient and consistent therapy usually leads to the goal at some point.

Book tips: Reiner Bahr: When children are silent. Understand and deal with inhibitions to speak. Walter-Verlag Düsseldorf, 157 pages, 14.90 euros.
Nitza Katz-Bernstein: Selective Mutism in Children. Ernst Reinhard-Verlag Munich, 249 pages, 24.90 euros.

Tracing service of the Chamber of Psychotherapists: 030-88714020.
"Still life" association, help for parents, doctors and educators at 0511-1296580.

More on the Internet at: (in English)

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