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Selective Mutism vs. Shyness

Feb 1, 2022 Your three-year-old is your pride and joy. Their smile just brightens your day and they are everything you could have ever wanted. They love to sing and talk so much at home. However, teachers tell you a different story. Not only are they quiet, but they do not interact with their peers even though they’ve been in daycare for months.

You also notice this behavior around strangers and certain family members. When you talk to friends, they tell you not to worry and it’s probably a phase your little tot will grow out of, but your mommy instincts tell you something different. Could it be something more? In this blog, we will discuss how to differentiate selective mutism from shyness.

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Definition of Selective Mutism and Child Shyness

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to communicate in some settings (classroom or around strangers), but is able to talk at home with no difficulty. It usually starts in early childhood, between the ages of 2 and 4. Researchers are still learning as to what could cause selective mutism, though many believe environmental and genetic factors could play a role.        

According to, child shyness, on the other hand, is a feeling of fear or discomfort caused by other people, especially in new situations or among strangers.  While many believe some kids are just born that way, studies tell us that social experiences along with parents who tend to be overprotective could influence a child to be shy. 

It is often difficult to differentiate selective mutism from shyness. And this is because a child who has selective mutism exhibits similar behaviors to a child who is shy. Some of the signs of selective mutism include:

  • Crying
  • Freezing 
  • Social isolation
  • Avoidance or lack of eye contact
  • The ability to easily speak at home but not with others (school or strangers). They may also use nonverbal means of communication or whisper to talk to others. 
  • Timid temperament and clinginess towards parents/caregivers
Selective Mutism vs. Child Shyness

What Are Some Key Differences?

Children who are shy eventually warm up to new situations, whereas kids with selective mutism do not. For instance, it may take a shy kid a week to adjust and be talkative in school, whereas one with selective mutism tends to remain nonverbal after many months in school. In addition to this, children with selective mutism often lack facial expression or have a “deer in the headlights” type appearance in certain settings. Furthermore, this disorder hinders many areas of life, whether it be academically or socially. And if left untreated, it may persist through adulthood. 

Additional Resources

Although a shy kid and a child with selective mutism may exhibit similar traits, they are not the same. Shyness is often seen as a personality trait, whereas selective mutism is a disorder affecting a child’s ability to communicate in certain settings. If you still have concerns about your child possibly having selective mutism, the first step to take is to talk to your child’s pediatrician and other health professionals. Once diagnosed, there may be several forms of treatments used to help them. If you want to learn more about selective mutism, here are few resources you can use:

  • Helping Your Child with Selective Mutism by Angela E. McHolm, Charles E. Cunningham, and Melanie K. Vanier
  • Understanding Katie by Adrienne Wallage and Elisa Shipon-Blum
  • Overcoming Selective Mutism: The Parent’s Field Guide by Aimee Kotrba and Shari J. Saffer
  • The Selective Mutism Resource Manual by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgins

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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