As we know, parents serve a critical role in their children’s development, and many experts believe that parental behaviors influence the symptomology presentation and severity in children with Selective Mutism. Parents often reinforce non-verbalization through different parenting styles, including their sensitivity and ability to adjust to their children’s needs. This might influence behavior that parents use to encourage or discourage a shy or anxious child to verbalize. It is important to be aware of behaviors that might create either increased or decreased expectation in a child when it comes to being verbal. When a child is diagnosed with Selective Mutism, it is imperative that parents adjust their behavior toward their children, or they run the risk of allowing symptoms to persist, which leads to worse outcomes.
Parents can encourage speech by allowing time for their child to respond, and rewording questions in a yes/no or choice format. It is true that parents of children with Selective Mutism report higher rates of anxiety, emotional withdrawal, and shyness compared to other parents (Alyanak et al., 2013). Parents who are withdrawn or suffer from untreated social anxiety not only model these behaviors for children, but also fail to recognize symptoms in their child; therefore, allowing their child to further escape anxious situations by withholding speech (Wong, 2010). Anxious parents may use over-controlling behaviors and give few opportunities for his or her child to feel independent. Psychological autonomy is crucial for children to feel competent and be better able to cope with anxiety. If a child does not feel autonomous, they might have trouble coping, thus resulting in less verbalization (Yeganeh et al., 2006).
It is hard to differentiate environmental influences (i.e., parental behaviors) from genetic factors (i.e., inherited anxiety). Though it is important to be aware that both nature and nurture play a role in the development and maintenance of a child’s Selective Mutism. So, it is important to understand how parental behaviors reinforce or discourage children’s symptoms. Treatment should focus on family functioning as a protective factor against developing/maintaining symptoms of Selective Mutism, as well as parental psychoeducation, and effective parenting strategies to model appropriate behaviors for coping with anxiety.
Kaitlyn Harrison, M.S.
Alyanak, B., Kılınçaslan, A., Sözen Harmancı, H., Karakoç Demirkaya, S., Yurtbay, T., & Ertem Vehid, H. (2013). Parental adjustment, parenting attitudes and emotional and behavioral problems in children with selective mutism. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 27(1), 9-15.
Richards-Rachlin, S. (2021). The Effects of Parental Behavior on Selective Mutism Symptomology . Applied Psychology OPUS. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://wp.nyu.edu/steinhardt-appsych_opus/parental-behavior-on-selective-mutism-symptomology/.
Wong, P. (2010). Selective mutism: A review of etiology, comorbidities, and treatment. Psychiatry, 7(3), 23-31.
Yeganeh, R., Beidel, D., & Turner, S. (2006). Selective mutism: More than social anxiety? Depression and Anxiety, 23(1), 117-123.