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3 Year Old Won't Talk in School. Selective Mutism?

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My three and a half year old son talks nonstop at home, but once in a setting with other kids his age he does not want to talk. He goes to a daycare three days a week and enjoys interacting with his peers, but does not speak. He will laugh, scream, giggle but that is about it. If his teacher tries to talk to him he will whisper, point, or shake his head. He plays with other kids outside of daycare and acts the same as above. When asked why he will not talk he says "I only talk at home," "I don't like to talk at school," "I am scared to talk at school," "My mouth hurts to talk at school." Any suggestions to get him to communicate better with his peers?

Thanks, Mark


Dear Mark,

I can understand your concern that your son is not talking with his peers, either at preschool or outside it. It is reassuring that he enjoys interacting with peers, in the sense of laughing, giggling, screaming, etc. It is also reassuring that he talks nonstop at home with you. He may just be a little shy, in which case he will outgrow it as he becomes more comfortable with other kids (although he may never be a group talker.) I will be better able to advise you if you can answer a few questions:

How is his hearing? It may be that in a group environment it is hard for him to make out the words, whereas at home he is compensating by reading your lips. I assume that this is not an issue, but it should be ruled out by a pediatrician.

Does he engage in play with other kids, such as at the playground? Even parallel play in the sandbox or on the climbing structure usually eases kids into conversation of some sort. Is he willing to have even one on one conversations with other kids?

Is his teacher concerned? While teachers can be wrong, they do see a wide range of children, so they have a good sense of what is unusual and what is simply a delay within the normal range.

Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,
Thank you for getting back with me. To answer your questions:
1. His hearing is not a problem. He just refuses to to talk outside of his parents. He doesn't want to us if other people are around.

2. He loves to play with other kids, and they love to play with him. He will wrestle and rough house but not verbalize.

3. His teachers have not shown real concern but I think that may be to keep us from over worrying. The pediatrician has no problem with his behavior as we asked his opinion as well.

Any suggestions? He seems to be getting worse. It takes longer to warm up to family to talk but he does not shy away when they come to our house. He shows off his toys but will not talk for quite some time. He loves to play with other kids his age but very very little verbalization. Is there anything we can do. He willing goes to other kids houses so he is not shy in that manner. Once we leave he talks nonstop. He does not like large groups of people his age but seems fine if we go the mall or a restaurant.



Without meeting your son, it's hard to say. Let me tell you what I see that's positive, what's worrisome, and what I suggest.

Positive indicators:

  • Your son talks with you nonstop.
  • Your pediatrician is not worried and has ruled out hearing problems.
  • Your son is comfortable going to peers' houses and playing with other kids.
  • Your son likes preschool.
  • Your son actually loves playing with other kids and they love playing with him.
  • His teachers aren't worried.

Here's what worries me. A 3 1/2 year old uses play for all sorts of important developmental achievements-- social, intellectual, emotional. And in play, children are expected by their peers to engage verbally. He will need to talk to be accepted by his social group. What's more, teachers may be forgiving now, but he will need to talk to function in school, and teachers often become less flexible about this particular issue as children move up through the grades. Many adults see a child's not speaking as being willfully uncooperative, and the adult tries to force the child to speak, which just makes the child feel more threatened and less able to speak.

Your son's not talking may already be getting in the way of his normal development, and if it continues, it will likely be more of an issue as he gets older. And since his not speaking probably indicates that he is not feeling completely safe in a school and social situations, it's important to address.

There is an anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism in which kids find it very difficult to talk in certain situations where they are anxious. One adult who suffered from Selective Mutism when she was a child told me that she could feel her throat closing up when she tried to talk at school. She would try, and just couldn't force the words out. That is how extreme fear feels to us--like extreme contraction and constriction. Your son's comments that "I am scared to talk at school," and "My mouth hurts to talk at school" sound like he may be expressing that same feeling. While I obviously can't diagnose your son from a letter, I think you want to intervene now so that this behavior doesn't become part of his coping repertoire.

Here's what I'd suggest:

1. Remove all pressure on your son to talk. Tell him that you understand that sometimes it is hard for him to talk, and that's ok. “Everybody gets a little nervous sometimes. You will talk when you're ready.”

2. Instead, focus on reducing his anxiety, both in school and out of it. Avoid anything that could be increasing his stress level. Talk to the teachers about helping him to feel safer at school. If he can feel more happily connected to an adult at school, that might make all the difference.

3. When you talk with him, empathize and give him language for his feelings. “Sounds like you were a little scared.” “I guess you were pretty mad.” This will help him feel less overwhelmed by his anxiety.

4. Reward progress in the right direction with enthusiastic acknowledgment and a big hug: “I saw you tell that boy at the playground your name. Good for you! You must be proud of how brave you were!”

5. Don't ever mention in front of him that this is an issue, and don't push him, or he will begin to harden into his self-image as someone who doesn't speak. If someone else mentions it, casually say “I guess he's feeling quiet today.”

6. Let him try on other personas. Play games with him where he uses different voices and takes on different characters. Encourage him to wear superhero costumes and teach him the hero's catch phrases. He might feel more comfortable if he's being someone else.

7. Make sure he knows what to say so he is less anxious when interacting. Role play with him how short conversations with other children might unfold.

8. Teach him tools to manage his anxiety. Start by helping him to notice when he feels anxious. Then teach him to use EFT (Emotional freedom technique, which is simply tapping on acupressure points and is effective in reducing anxiety), progressive muscle relaxation, and other tools to relax. (Here's an article on EFT.)

I think with these techniques you will see your son begin speaking in school.

If not, though, I suggest that you follow up by educating yourself about Selective Mutism. Most laypeople, including teachers, don't know about it, and if you do decide to consult a professional, I would recommend that you start with, to find a professional who is experienced in the specific treatment required for this anxiety disorder. I want to reassure you that if properly treated (i.e., with techniques to manage anxiety rather than with pressure to speak), kids are able to overcome even full-blown selective mutism, which I do not think your son has, because he does seem comfortable playing with other children.

I wish you and your son every blessing. He sounds like a wonderful kid.
Please stay in touch and let me know what happens.

Dr. Laura

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