Ask An Expert / Selective Mutism

My son with SM is now refusing to talk to his sister. What should we do?

We feel he’s doing this on purpose

What do I do about my son, who has been diagnosed with selective mutism but is now choosing to be mute to family members to get negative attention? He has always spoken to his sister but not to outside adults, and now he doesn't speak to her and it's not the SM. He refuses even though we told him his behavior is unacceptable and we know he's comfortable with her. We told him he'd have to go to bed if he kept up the behavior instead of telling her he was sorry. So we put him to bed and still he continued not to speak to her again today. I feel he is definitely doing this on purpose. Help please.

Having a child with selective mutism stop speaking to someone who has been “safe” for him is very frustrating, and it’s tempting to interpret that behavior as “choosing” not to speak. But treating his silence as defiant can be damaging to your relationship to your son, and his progress. That’s why both professionals and parents worked hard to change the official diagnostic term from elective mutism to selective mutism.

There are many reasons that a person, a place, or a situation can become “contaminated” for a child with SM, rendering him unable to speak. It is not always obvious how or why is happens, and it can even occur with a close relative like a sibling or a parent. Just because he doesn’t look anxious when he’s not speaking doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel anxious; some kids with SM don’t show physical signs of anxiety as much as typical kids.

In addition, just because a behavior gets “negative attention” does not mean that the child is doing the behavior in order to get such negative attention. And if a child who is not generally oppositional chooses to endure the punishment of going to bed early and then still doesn’t speak, chances are good it is not due to being oppositional or headstrong. If a child won’t talk to the point of punishment, in stark contrast to previous behavior, the most likely answer is that it’s the SM, as hard as it is to hear.

Punishing him for not speaking isn’t likely to help him; kids with SM respond much more to positive reinforcement when they do what we call “brave talking,” and behavioral therapy to gradually reduce the anxiety that drives his SM is the best evidence-based course.