Learning About Shyness and Selective Mutism

I've just listened to such a fascinating podcast from Quiet Connections which is all about selective mutism. This isn’t something I’ve ever learnt much about or felt connected to, but SO MUCH of this conversation reminded me of my childhood self, and I learnt a huge amount too.

I had the common misconception that selective mutism meant being extremely quiet all of the time, and I envisaged a child who doesn’t speak at all. Guest speaker Chelsea Gamache describes that this isn’t always the case, and that children who are very chatty in some situations can freeze up and feel unable to speak in others (often at school or with new people). Relate?

I so clearly remember starting secondary school and not speaking unless I absolutely had to. My 11 year old self was in complete overwhelm and I retreated as much as possible, desperately hoping the teacher wouldn’t ask me a question or draw attention to me in class. I would often know the answer but never be brave enough to put my hand up and use my voice. This conversation acknowledges that this is quite common, and begins to explore why this kind of behaviour happens.

Howver, some of this episode uses language around ‘disorder’ and describes selective mutism as a condition that people might 'suffer from'. I’ve got mixed feelings about this, as I don’t feel it’s helpful to pathologise quietness or shyness as ‘something wrong with you’. I enjoyed hearing host Hayley gently adjust her own language to avoid doing this, as I know she feels the same way about framing quietness as a secret strength. (Have a look at Quiet Connections CIC if you haven't already...)

With all of that said, what conversations like this do so well is increase the understanding, and therefore empathy and acceptance, around an unusual behaviour like selective mutism or social anxiety.

I’d never in my life heard anyone talk about using an ‘other voice’ - often a more childlike voice - as a coping behaviour before. I did this myself and carried so much shame round it, even though I knew it was a kind of defence mechanism. Now I want to send this episode to everyone who got irritated with me and told me to stop.

It makes a lot of sense that when people are afraid to use their own voice, a coping strategy is to adopt a different one - however hard that might be for the people around them to understand.

When I have time, I'll definitely be listening to more of Chelsea Gamache's 'Outloud' podcast and learning more about selective mutism in children, and what this means for their development and behaviour as adults. 🙏🏼