Childhood anxiety: What is selective mutism?

My Experience of Childhood Anxiety: Selective Mutism

What is selective mutism? As a child, I didn't realize I suffered from anxiety. Some helpful information for parents with questions about childhood anxiety.

Sometimes I’m… Quiet

I had nothing to say. NOTHING.

I could sit for an entire visit to my cousins’ in silence. Hours. Saying nothing unless someone dragged mostly monosyllabic responses out of me.

One day, my grandmother cajoled me into relating a recent babysitting experience. As I got to the part about using ice to get the gum out of my charge’s hair – fortunately for her mother who was out of town, because the dad said he would have just cut it out

I looked up at my cousins, aunt, uncle, all listening with faces wearing masks of interest.

I felt ridiculous. I clammed up.

They made comments and asked questions to show they were listening. Like my grandfather, they all obviously wanted to encourage me to keep talking. Even if it was only my grandmother who found the story interesting in the first place.

I fell further into myself.

I’ve always hated feeling patronized.

I’m Just… Different

I knew my gregarious family thought my behavior was abnormal, but, as a child, I lacked experience of normal social interactions, and the cognitive ability, to understand how far out of the ordinary my behavior was.

As a young teen, I blamed being adopted for my quietness; I was just different from my mom’s talkative family. I also believed I had nothing worth saying as everyone else related funny on interesting experiences and accomplishments. I accepted the label, “shy.” In my mid-teens, I felt humiliated when I was told my family considered me “socially retarded,” but understood how they came to describe me with the term.

As an adult, I learned about social anxiety and recognized it in myself. I now know the uncomfortable, self-conscious silence of my childhood has a name: selective mutism.

One reason it has been difficult to identify my anxiety as anxiety is that it so often isn’t agitated.

How could I have ANXIETY if I wasn't agitated?It’s like someone who is in danger of drowning. You can lose a child, or adult, if you think someone in trouble in the water will be flailing and yelling. It’s called the Instinctive Drowning Response. Speaking is secondary to breathing when it comes to our respiratory systems. When the body is focused on getting enough oxygen to stay alive, breathing is where all the effort goes. Arms, legs, not moving, just hanging in the water.

looked calm. In a way, I felt calm. My brain was so overwhelmed, it partly shut down. Breath to breath, I got from one moment to the next.

Children who suffer from anxiety need help recognizing symptoms of anxiety for what they are. They also need help to understand that what they are feeling, and likely the way their feelings make them behave, is extreme.

For more about my experience of anxiety as a child and adult, check out If Anxiety Could Write You a Letter.

How is Childhood Anxiety Different from Adult Anxiety? What Parents Need to Know

If you suffer from anxiety, you know the overwhelm that can strike at random. You may have certain places or situations you recognize as potential triggers. You may be one of the significant number of adults who end up in the ER thinking they are having a heart attack only to find out they are suffering a panic attack.

In whatever forms anxiety has found and exploited you, it is likely you recognize that your symptoms, your reactions and feelings, when you experience anxiety, are extreme.

A child lacks a frame of reference to understand his reactions and feelings are extreme. They younger the onset of symptoms, the more normal a child will believe what he is feeling and experiencing are normal. He has less experience with what are considered normal responses; he just knows how he feels, not how to evaluate his feelings for reasonableness. He feels his responses are normal, because they are what he knows. They are less likely to recognize that their worry is excessive, or that their fear is irrational.

Read the rest of How is Childhood Anxiety Different from Adult Anxiety? What Parents Need to Know on Defying Shadows

For more information on selective mutism, check out the following resources:

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA):  Selective Mutism

PsychCentral: Selective Mutism Symptoms

National Health Service UK (NHS): Selective Mutism

National Institutes of Health, United States National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): Selective Mutism: A Review of Etiology, Comorbidities, and Treatment

Childhood anxiety: What is selective mutism?

Are you afraid your struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental illness makes you unfit to serve in the church? Don’t be distracted from your call: Health, Wholeness, and Being a Nose Hair in the Body of Christ.

If you’d like to learn more about the various types of mental illness or if you’re wondering if a “good” Christian can struggle with mental illness, read Faith and Mental Illness.

Looking for physically and spiritually healthy ways to deal with mental illness?

Healthy Body, Mind, and Soul Habits

Five Things You Should Be Doing Regularly to Maintain Your Mental Health 

Six Things to Do When You Don’t Want to Do Anything

Six Tips to Do More than Just Survive the Holidays

From Suicide Watch to Sushi

8 thoughts on “My Experience of Childhood Anxiety: Selective Mutism

  1. This past summer I have seen flags from my daughter that indicates she may one day develop an anxiety disorder like her father. We are trying to give her the tools she needs now so that she can have an easier time dealing with her anxiety

    • It’s so important for people to have tools to deal with anxiety. I’m glad you’re getting out in front of the possibility of an anxiety disorder with your daughter.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! I’m a mental health therapist and I work both with children and adults. Whenever I have a child client who struggles with anxiety and past trauma I focus on education for both the child and the parent to understand how the symptoms are going to manifest and multiple ways to decrease the intensity. You’re right, childhood anxiety often looks quite different than adult anxiety which is why parents misunderstand what is going on. God bless you and your journey!

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. Yes, both parents and children need help to understand what’s going on, and how best to handle symptoms. Thank you for doing what you do to help people dealing with mental health issues.

  3. My husband and I have been learning more about this together as we begin our journey as foster parents and hoping to adopt someday. I am adopted too. These children aren’t shy. They are shut down because the people in their lives who were supposed to care weren’t there for them. Its trauma. But in the midst of this broken life God is so much bigger and can work through our anxiety.

    • Thank you for your willingness to foster children who have experienced trauma. I admire those who fulfill this important function of the Body of Christ. Yes, God is so much bigger than all of our brokenness, and will make beautiful all that we yield to Him.

  4. My prayers go out to you!. May you continue to expose the truths of mental disorders. When I was younger I was considered”shy” because I didn’t communicate with everyone all the time. I was very reserved in my interactions especially at school. I thought that every one was judging and or laughing at me, but I’ve come to realise that most times people were paying me no attention. The conversations that were telling me were thoughts in my head being shot at me by the devil. I’ve learned that some thoughts I think are not my own. Have you ever read “Battlefield of the Mind” by Joyce Meyer its a great read that gives more insight into what I’m talking about.
    Thanks again for sharing your story
    May God Bless You

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. There are so many lies that can easily plague us! Yes, I have read Battlefield of the Mind, and agree it is a helpful book. Thank you for recommending it.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: