Do you worry that your child sometimes seems too quiet?

Welcome to Voice!

VOICE is a New Zealand based charity, working to raise awareness and provide support for families affected by selective mutism.

What is selective mutism?

It can come as a surprise to learn that your bright, talkative child does not speak at all in other environments. This is a tell-tale sign of selective mutism – a little known anxiety disorder that prevents sufferers from speaking in select situations no matter how much they long to.

If you are concerned that your child may be more than shy, it is possible that they may be suffering from a symptom of anxiety that literally freezes their vocal chords. Children with selective mutism want to speak, but they physically cannot.

Selective Mutism is a relatively rare condition, which is reported to affect up to 1% of children in New Zealand as well as teens and adults. Very few parents, teachers and professionals have heard of selective mutism. At VOICE, we plan to change that.

If you recognise the following symptoms in your child, it is possible that they may be experiencing selective mutism >>>

Children with selective mutism usually have no problems with their speech. In situations in which they feel comfortable they are often very chatty and bright. This is usually seen in the home and with people who are familiar and the child feels comfortable around.

In certain situations, the sufferer of selective mutism finds that their voice box is literally frozen. They cannot speak, no matter how hard they try.

Many people do not understand this behaviour, especially if they have heard the child speak before – and sometimes it is mistaken as shyness, or rude, wilful behaviour.

Selective Mutism is named for the select situations in which the sufferer may or may not be able to speak. This means that your child may have no problem speaking to children, but they may struggle to communicate at all with adults. or vice versa. Or perhaps they can speak freely to everyone in their home setting, but cannot manage to talk anywhere else.

The select situations within which your child finds themselves unable to speak will be unique to them. Everybody’s experience is a little bit different.

Many selective mute children struggle to make eye contact and also to communicate with their facial expressions. This does not mean that the child is unhappy or lacks connection, but just that the symptoms of selective mutism are not limited to their frozen voices.

It will likely be very difficult to take a photograph of your selectively mute child smiling, particularly if it is a stranger behind the camera.

Selective mutism does not just disappear …

If selective mutism and the underlying difficulties are not addressed in early childhood, the symptoms and behaviour usually become more deeply ingrained and difficult to shift.

Older children, teens and adults often experience a greater intensity of their symptoms as they grow. Untreated, some people are able to create their own coping strategies, but others turn inward and often develop further complications such as depression, agoraphobia, substance abuse, and more. Progressive mutism is one potential difficulty, where the sufferer finds themselves unable to speak in any situation, even in their own home.

It is therefore very important not to brush off potential SM symptoms as shyness, or to assume that the child will ‘grow out of it’. Instead, we recommend seeking additional support for your child.

What does selective mutism feel like?

Some NZ children with selective mutism described to their parents how it feels for them >>>

  • My throat plays games with my words

    F, age 6
  • I get a fright in my throat

    D, age 5
  • It feels like I have a rock pushing down on my chest

    Sofia, age 7
  • My voice just disappears. I don't know where it goes

    S, age 5
  • I would love to talk, but my head doesn't want to.

    Noah, age 5
  • Its all the eyes mummy. My voice gets stuck.

    Rae, age 8
  • "I wanna talk ... but the words, they are stuck in a hole. Makes me wanna vomit. It's awkward.

    Tamara, age 10

If you suspect your child may be suffering from selective mutism …

At VOICE we recommend a collaborative approach toward treatment of selective mutism – meaning that parents, teachers and any other adults who come into contact with the child are all involved. We also believe in a gentle, child-led approach. Selective mutism is a complex condition, and if the child does not receive the support they need in all settings, progress may slow down or even stop.

For children who attend school or pre-school, this is the setting where selective mutism is usually the most pronounced. Programmes have been written to address selective mutism within the school environment, and these very often see improvement by using the ‘Sliding In’ technique. VOICE currently have plans to create a NZ specific programme, but in the meantime we recommend parents to contact Valerie Marschall (based in France with her NZ husband). Valerie pioneered ‘The School Pack’ in France with much success.

VOICE is a brand new charity, with limited resources at present. We are currently focussed on creating awareness of selective mutism, with workshops, recommended techniques and research being planned as we gain traction.

We hope that through this awareness, many more children will receive the understanding and gentle approach to their temperament that they deserve. Whilst we are developing our recommended approach in New Zealand, please take a look at our VOICE tools to help with your understanding and communication of selective mutism.

School is the place where most children with selective mutism exhibit their strongest symptoms. For this reason, it makes sense to us that school is the main place where selective mutism is worked upon. If you suspect that your child may be experiencing selective mutism, please pass on our PDF for teachers and educators to your child’s school.

Resources we recommend

We think books are a wonderful resource – both for you and your child. Click the link below to learn more about our favourite books – all written to help children, parents, teachers and professionals to better understand selective mutism …

Browse resources in our shop!

Your donation will help VOICE to support more families struggling with selective mutism.

KatHarperVOICE