Kat Speaksselective mutism

Is it possible to grow out of selective mutism?

When I was young I had no idea that Selective Mutism existed. I assumed I was ‘just shy’ and I also assumed that one day I would simply grow out of my shyness, and find it easy to share my voice with others just like everybody else.


I dreamed of the day I would cross that magical threshold – and of the ideas, questions and opinions I would be able to share when I got there.

Many times through the years I found myself looking in the mirror, shocked that I had grown so much older, but yet I still wasn’t able to share myself the way I wanted to.

It was very disheartening – being selective mute (and not knowing it) – and wondering when things would finally slip into place

Today I am given the benefit of hindsight. I am able to look back on my life, and understand a lot more about what was going on for me. I can understand, by looking through the lens of selective mutism, why it was so difficult for me to talk. I can make peace with my pain and frustrations, and much of the negative self-talk that went on inside of my head. I can even make peace with the judgments of other people.

I can look back and I can understand that selective mutism was extremely misunderstood at the time. It was understood, back then, that not-speaking was a choice that I made – and that if I wanted to I would be able to speak in any situation.

The problem is that today, many people are non-the-wiser

Beliefs such as ‘it is her choice to not-talk‘ and ‘he’ll grow out of it!‘ appear to be common-place. I can easily vouch for the lack of choice when it comes to not speaking in select situations. It simply isn’t possible to speak when your anxiety levels peak and your voice box goes missing in action. Sometimes it is easy to say some things, but not others. Sometimes the words come out, but they are strained or very quiet. Other times, no words will come at all.

My question is, given time, will these symptoms ease? As the selective mute child grows, is it possible that life will change these behaviours? Will the anxious behaviour naturally ease, allowing the voice to make a come-back?

I’d love to be able to say “Yes!” “Of course!” “In my experience it did!”

But it didn’t happen like that – so I asked the question in a Facebook group that has been set up for selectively mute adults.

“I haven’t grown out of it.”

“I didn’t grow out of it.”

“In my view … I didn’t out grow it, I fought against it. Wasn’t an over night thing, was a gradual thing and took years to get to where I am now.”

“I’m not entirely sure that I have grown out of SM 100%. I can speak to people but don’t like crowds, I hate speaking on the phone, and would no way be able to do any public speaking. By nature, I am a worrier and get anxious easily….. x”

I feel similarly. Initiating conversations, picking up the phone, certain situations … it is still difficult for me at times. I fought my ‘shyness’ after leaving school, and gradually found new ways to cope – and to hide my anxiety. This approach created its own difficulties for me, and my selective mute symptoms were simply replaced instead of removed. I only really began to improve once I began to embrace the person I am and the sensitive traits that make me.

Today I am in my mid-thirties, and occasionally I still struggle to find my voice – any voice – despite the fact that in most situations, even publicly, I speak easily

Despite the difficulties that we, and thousands of others, have faced in our struggle to find ease in expression I do believe that, given the right conditions, some people might appear to grow out of selective mutism. A change of conditions, such as school, class, teacher or area where anxiety levels some-how become lowered. A change in approach by the people around us. A change within ourselves, whereby we find it much easier to manage our anxiety. Something needs to change, but it needs to be the right kind of change …

“hypothetically speaking I think it may be possible to outgrow sm if it wasn’t for other people and their comments. I could clearly see with my own dd the time when it became an issue and she became self aware of it and that was when people started to highlight it. Without those comments, and being home educated , I do believe that her own self confidence may have naturally grown to a point where she might effectively outgrow it. However that did not happen and a more likely scenario is the ability to ‘overcome’ sm which I do believe is possible even without formal therapy, although obviously not for everybody.”

“It’s a myth ! … You cannot grow out of it, and those who say that a young child will do so do not understand the risk they are taking by not treating the mutism. Each child is different, some will overcome with their own desire, but the majority will only overcome SM when given the treatment, support and the environment they need. We hear so many say ‘I grew out of my SM’ but then we learn that yes, they did overcome SM but only after a change in their situation, something happened to reduce their anxiety. This might have been a house move, a new school, planned or even unplanned changes, but that is not the same as ‘reaching a certain age’.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to the many changes that my younger self faced and offer the little me the perspective I now own

I wonder if she would take it. I wonder if it would have helped her anxiety levels. I wonder how my life might have looked if the many moves and changes I went through in my first five years had been enough to ease my symptoms instead of increasing them.

There are many different ways we can approach selective mutism, but it is clear to me that ignoring it and expecting it to go away by itself is an approach that is unlikely to see success.

A selectively mute child is not ‘just shy’. They will not ‘grow out of it’ and we should not ‘give it time’

A selectively mute child needs your help to ease their anxiety. They need to be heard and acknowledged. If they cannot talk in a situation, they need you to understand that this situation induces huge anxiety for them, and they need these triggers to reduce.

Most selective mute people have gentle, sensitive personalities. We need a gentle, sensitive approach, both by ourselves and others, to help us to thrive. When it is given, it will indeed appear that we are growing out of our symptoms, but instead (I believe) we are finding a way to grow into ourselves.

Please feel free to share your thoughts below – I’d love to hear how you or a child in your life has been able to overcome aspects of their selective mutism!

9 thoughts on “Is it possible to grow out of selective mutism?

  1. Very interesting perspective. My son is a 4 year old we recently discovered has SM. I was curious what specific changes you think would be helpful? He is now starting to get help and has qualified for therapy. What reactions and expressions would you like to see from your parents that would have helped eased anxiety. We have taking a more laid back approach and never try to get him to speak. As far as school he has anxiety there but what are ways to reduce that and overall anxiety he feels. Right now he can’t communicate things that bother him other than cheering and us telling him we are proud of him that although natural we now try to stop doing that and just smile. Thanks in advance for your response.

    1. Thanks for your comment!! I think the fact that your son is starting to get help is great – I wouldn’t be able to suggest any specific changes you might make without knowing you or your situation. Hopefully your therapist will have some good ideas …. Have you also spoken to his teacher and other teachers at school? Look into the ‘sliding in’ technique if you haven’t already.

      I think the best thing you can do for him is listen, accept and love him as he is, and I have no doubt that you are already doing these things! It sounds like he is able to communicate his difficulties quite well to you, and how wonderful that you are honouring that!! I know how difficult it is to not praise your child, but can also understand his perspective. Too much attention in any form can provoke anxiety, and I didn’t like being praised either. He is likely sensitive enough that he will be able to feel all these things from you anyway.

      Most difficult for me was being questioned about what was happening for me. I found it impossible to answer – and the questions sounded more like accusations to me, and created greater pressure and anxiety. I’d recommend instead talking about feelings more generally, maybe when you are reading to him, you could point to the pictures and ask him how he thinks the characters are feeling. This is an indirect way for him to open up about his feelings to you if and when he is ready. Thanks, and I hope this helps x

  2. I just found out about SM and started crying, I didn’t know I had disorder as a child until now. I always thought I was just extremely shy and that I would grow out of it. One time my fifth grade teacher screamed at me for not wanting to speak she asked if I was deaf. I would always freeze when having to present something in front of the class. I never liked when the teacher would pick on me and I would never raise my hand and ask questions. I no longer have trouble talking to teachers and other people but I don’t think I grew out of it. I still have my moments sometimes but it’s not as bad as when I was a kid.

    1. Thanks for your comment Diana! I found it huge when I found out about sm – suddenly my childhood made a whole lot more sense! I hope the same happens for you xx

  3. I recently found out about selective mutism at 30 years old through a documentary about it. I cried. Everything covered in that documentary described my own childhood perfectly. School was the trigger for me. I was completely comfortable at home and with my friends outside of school. In school, I earned the nickname “Mouse” because I was “quiet as a mouse”. I had very few friends because I couldn’t talk. Kids can be cruel. I was made fun of on a daily basis for my lack of speech at school. My peers would get in my face and ask me “Why don’t you ever talk?”, “Are you retarded?”, “What’s wrong with you?”, “You just don’t have anything to say?”. This, of course, made my anxiety worse. Because SM was still a relatively new disorder at the time, I went undiagnosed. My teachers actually praised me for not talking while they tried so hard to get the rest of my classmates to be quiet. I didn’t grow out of it. All the way through school until I graduated high school, I suffered unknowingly from SM. When I started college, it got easier. I felt more comfortable and was able to speak up a little more. I had a much easier time adapting to college as an art major and was able to actually speak up in my art classes. I actually became a school teacher and now have no problem speaking as part of my job. However, my voice was and still is very soft and hard for others to hear. I have to use a microphone if I do any form of public speaking even if the size of the room is small. I still fall back into the old habit of falling silent when I’m placed in a social setting where I do not know people such as going to a party where I only know the hostess. My voice is still very soft and annoys me. Even when I try raising my voice or shouting, I am told that my voice is still too soft. I guess it is from lack of use growing up.

    1. Thanks for sharing Julie – I hope gaining a greater understanding about SM can help you heal more completely as it did for me. I imagine you would be an amazing teacher, with the awareness and sensitivity you must have. It is only through having my own children that I have been able to appreciate the benefits of those aspects of myself, and how it helps to connect with the needs of others. Xx

  4. I was not aware of Selective Mutism when I was a child so when I first found out about it i was happy that there were other people with similar experiences. At a very young age I stopped being able to talk to adults, unless it was in a very quiet whisper. At home I was just a normal loud child. As a child some adults would react kindly and not seem to mind but others would react as if it was a choice that I was making or something that I needed to grow out of or be forced to grow out of. Some adults would seem to be annoyed with me, which I found very difficult. As I got older I found that in some situations my voice remained very quiet – almost a whisper- and after school I found it very difficult to enter into situations where my voice would get in the way. I knew, for instance that I wouldn’t get a job if I went for an interview because of my voice. At around 16 i became very depressed and withdrawn as the world didn’t seem to be a place where I would be able to fit. I blamed myself. I think that I had internalized those voices that were telling me that I just wasn’t trying. I think that in some situations I have adopted a persona to help me to I think that I have found it very confusing as an adult because I often feel as if people are underestimating me. I have often been quite hard on myself and believed that I need to try harder to make my voice louder. Sometimes I can feel an intense anxiety if someone draws attention to my voice. I have been very careful with who I have chosen as friends and tend to have a handful of very close friends rather than a big social network. As I have moved into adulthood proper, working in social care and now training to be a counsellor I have found that I have become more self-accepting and comfortable with who I am and what I have to offer. This self-acceptance has helped me to move away from the idea that there is something wrong with me. The more I focus on my value as a person the less my voice seems to be an issue.

    1. How awesome that you have found your way to self-acceptance Robin!! I love your last sentence – that summarises everything I believe. Thank you for sharing 🙂

Comments are closed.