Selective Mutism and Play Therapy

Some children have a lot of trouble speaking. Other children are unable to speak only in certain places, like school or when they are away from home. This can be maddening for parents as the child will often speak freely in other settings, especially the home. If this occurs for your child, they may have selective mutism.

Although selective mutism is often talked about in terms of a child’s refusal to speak, it’s important to realise it does not feel like a choice to the child. The key with selective mutism, is that children with this disorder will speak where they feel the most safe, such as at home, among direct family members or with a close friend.

Selective Mutism and Play Therapy
Selective Mutism and Play Therapy

In other settings where they don’t feel as safe, like school or among adults they don’t know well, they will be unable to talk. Because the child ‘can’ speak in some settings, it can seem as though they are refusing or choosing not to speak at times and it can be easy to get frustrated and angry with them.

They typically have an extreme fear of speaking in social situations and feel paralysed by this fear. As these children feel so unsafe in social situations, they use silence to gain a sense of control and safety.

How you can help

  • Keep in mind that when your child doesn’t talk, it is not a choice for them, even though they can speak in some places and not others.
  • Don’t pressure your child to speak, it will probably make them more silent.
  • Reflect back to them what you think they may be feeling, e.g., “sometimes it’s scary to talk in front of people you don’t know” or “sometimes when you’re scared it makes you feel safer when you don’t speak”.
  • Use reflective listening and encouragement when they do speak voluntarily e.g., “You explained how to play that game really clearly” or “you used a strong voice to ask for lunch”.

 Why choose Play Therapy?

  • Play Therapy does not require any verbal interaction from the child. Therapies that rely on the child talking often fail because the child continues to use their silence as a way to have control in a fearful situation. Caregivers often see play therapy as an obvious choice for a child that cannot use words.
  • Play Therapy is a non-verbal solution to a non-verbal problem.
  • Play is the natural way that children communicate; Play Therapy allows children to use play to work through issues.
  • Play Therapy is so gentle that children usually enjoy and look forward to their weekly sessions.

 How does Play Therapy help?

  • Children who do not speak do so because they feel unsafe. Play Therapy completely accepts the child exactly where they are, which means no pressure is placed on the child to talk or change. Through the therapist’s complete acceptance of the child they begin to feel in control. They then begin to communicate, through play, by working through and resolving the deeper issues leading to their selective mutism.
  • Through play, children can experiment with being in control of social situations. They can try out speaking in the therapy room, without the pressure to perform. Children then often demonstrate the newfound ability to speak spontaneously with other people and in other settings such as the classroom.