If you struggle to get your teen to mutter just a few words about her day, you're not alone. Most parents wish their teens would open up and talk more, but in rare cases, teens can develop selective mutism, which means they freeze during certain situations and are too nervous to say anything. Your teen might clam up at school or in social circumstances with people she doesn't know. Knowing the causes and symptoms will help you get your teen the help she needs.
Selective mutism occurs when your teen doesn't speak in certain settings, but is willing to talk in other environments. Many teens are selectively mute at school or in social circumstances but are comfortable talking at home or when they're with family members. Teens with selective mutism are capable of talking and don't have language barriers or speaking disabilities such as stuttering, according to the American Speech, Language, Hearing Association. Instead, children with selective mutism opt not to speak when they don't feel comfortable doing so.
Selective mutism typically shows up in early childhood and becomes apparent once a child starts school. In some cases, a child might overcome selective mutism as he gets older, but a small number of teens still exhibit the disorder. According to Eric Jay Mash and David Allen Wolfe, authors of "Abnormal Child Psychology," the overall prevalence of selective mutism is 0.5 percent, with more girls being affected than boys. The authors also note that about 90 percent of children with selective autism also have symptoms of another social phobia, such as anxiety.
While no diagnostic criteria exists for selective mutism, according to PubMed Health, a child's history of symptoms can give parents and doctors signs that a teen is experiencing selective mutism. If your teen is comfortable talking at home and with people she knows, but is nervous or scared to speak around people she doesn't know, chances are good that she has selective mutism. In many cases, selective mutism occurs because a teen has low self-esteem or is worried what others will think of her if she speaks out loud. Other teens might develop selective mutism in response to a highly traumatic event or because of another condition such as anxiety disorder.
Selective mutism on its own isn't a health problem. In other words, your teen isn't going to experience physical health problems because of his unwillingness to speak in certain social situations. He might, however, experience emotional problems as a result. Don't ignore the signs that your teen could have the disorder. Instead, make an appointment with your teen's doctor. He'll ask a series of questions about your teen and his problems talking and can give you a referral to a counselor or therapist trained to provide successful interventions for teens with selective mutism.