Selective mutism, a condition that causes children to speak normally in some situations while failing to speak in others, can lead to lots of problems for teenagers. Educational problems can arise when teens aren't able to speak at school. For teenagers whose selective mutism prevents them from speaking in public or around strangers, it can severely impair their social lives. Diagnosing selective mutism usually requires a team effort between a physician, speech-language pathologist and mental health professional 3.

Symptoms of Selective Mutism

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, selective mutism usually starts prior to the age of 5 and can last throughout a person's life 3. It is considered a type of social phobia that causes teenagers to feel so anxious in some situations that they can't speak 1. While some teenagers with selective mutism avoid speaking to strangers, others fail to speak anytime they are outside their own home. Some people with selective mutism are willing to interact non-verbally, while others avoid gestures and eye contact.

Causes of Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is a type of anxiety disorder that can get worse over time. According to the NYU Child Study Center, parents sometimes inadvertently support a child in developing selective mutism 2. Parents who communicate for their child when they sense their child feels uncomfortable, can reinforce their child's efforts to avoid speaking. Sometimes, classmates even take on a protective role and try to speak for a child with selective mutism 2. The longer a child avoids speaking, the more difficult it becomes. By the time a child reaches the teen years, it can become nearly impossible to speak in anxiety-provoking situations without treatment.

Treatment for Selective Mutism

Cognitive-behavior therapy with a mental health professional has been shown to be effective in treating selective mutism. It focuses on exposure therapy, which gradually exposes a teenager to speaking in uncomfortable situations. Parental participation can be beneficial to the treatment, as parents can learn behavioral techniques that motivate a child to speak. Speech therapy might be necessary when underlying speech problems exist. Medication can be used to reduce anxiety, which can make it easier for a teenager to talk in anxiety-provoking situations.

Dangers of Not Receiving Treatment

Symptoms of selective mutism aren't likely to go away on their own, and a lack of treatment can lead to bigger problems. Although early intervention is best, it's never too late for people to receive treatment. Teenagers with selective mutism are at risk of social isolation and can become a target of bullying.The Selective Mutism Group reports that there is some research that untreated cases of selective mutism can lead to more serious problems in adulthood, such as depression, avoidant personality disorder or even substance abuse problems.