It is important to differentiate between these two terms. Reluctance to talk is not a milder form of selective mutism (SM), on a continuum with SM, or a ‘softer’ name for SM. If we need an alternative to ‘SM’ or are unsure of the diagnosis, we could refer to ‘fear of talking’, ‘anxiety/worry about talking’, or ‘speech-anxiety’.

Reluctance to talk

ALL of us are reluctant to talk at times and are usually aware of the reason:

  • we don’t know what to say or how to say it
  • we are embarrassed about our speech
  • we don’t want to say the wrong thing or cause offence
  • we don’t want to look stupid
  • we don’t want to be corrected, teased, or misunderstood
  • we feel too tired, upset or overwhelmed to speak
  • there’s a particular person who has upset us
  • we feel unsure of ourselves and lack the confidence to initiate conversation (this includes shyness)

But these things rarely prevent us talking completely to certain people for a whole month and longer, which is what happens with SM. We’d be able to talk to that person in a different situation. Even when someone upsets us, long-term feuds are rare and an apology works wonders!

Children may also be reluctant to talk if they’re worried about getting told off, if they are constantly corrected, don’t know people very well or are unsure of the answer or what to say. Don’t forget that this applies to children with SM too! So, to make a diagnosis of SM we need to find situations where none of these explanations apply and the child knows exactly what to say but does not speak, e.g. answering the register; playing a favourite game; responding yes or no in a structured activity; talking to their parents or friends in close proximity of others.

Selective mutism

Children and young people with SM have no idea why they can’t talk – they want to talk but something prevents it happening. The simple act of talking creates a sense of panic. It is nothing to do with the perceived consequences of talking, or their general mood, the language demands, the social circumstances or the other person (they have no issues with that person, other than the expectation to talk to them – if they were 100% sure there was no need to speak, they wouldn’t avoid that person).

So, in direct contrast with the above reasons for reluctance to speak:

  • children who have SM know exactly what to say but still can’t say it (e.g. they can play a verbal game like Guess Who? with some people but not others)
  • they are overly self-conscious about being overheard talking to their family, even when it is extremely unlikely that nearby strangers will be interested enough to stop what they are doing and join in the conversation even when they know their answer is correct and have been reassured it’s ‘safe’ to speak, they cannot get the words out
  • they worry that not speaking will make them look stupid but still can’t speak (apart from children with low-profile SM who manage a word or two under duress)
  • they cannot participate in activities where there’s no chance of being misunderstood or corrected (e.g. singing or talking in unison)
  • they do not vocalise at all with certain people (even to laugh, cry, etc.)
  • they do not speak to most new people that they meet, even after meeting those people several times within a four-week period
  • it’s not personal – they have difficulty speaking to both strangers and people they know well, and to people they like a lot and people they are wary of.

It is important that we do not use the terms ‘reluctant talker’ and ‘selective mutism’ interchangeably, as there are significant differences between the two and different implications for management. If you have concerns about a child, you can consider appropriate support strategies using advice from your local speech and language therapy or psychology service or The Selective Mutism Resource Manual, second edition (2016), by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens, Speechmark Publishing Ltd. A full guide can be downloaded at­to-get-help-with-selective-mutism/

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