Selective Mutism: Why Certain Words are Trickier (hello / goodbye / please / thank you / sorry)

Certain words are particularly hard for children with selective mutism to say.

Words such as, 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you', 'I love you' and 'sorry'.

Parents often tell me:

"My child cannot say hello, goodbye, please or thank you".

Even if they are able to talk to a specific person, they may still freeze when bumping into a person in the street and are unable to say "hello". Or if they are given a gift, they are unable to say "thank you".

In this article I am going to explain why these specific words are particularly tricky for children with selective mutism to say.

1. They are pressure words

If you think about it, if you don't say hello, goodbye, please or thank you, you are considered as 'rude' by society.

Therefore, children may be feeling pressured, unintentionally, with these words.

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder and our first step is to take away pressure around speech. As these words are pressure words, and if you don't say them you are considered as 'rude', they therefore naturally elicit more anxiety within children.

2. Children have more experience with not being able to say these words

The child has probably been in many situations where people have said "say hello", "say goodbye", "say please", "say thank you" "say sorry".

We as adults around our children, have probably unintentionally put them on the spot and said "say please", "say thank you" etc. By putting them on the spot, unintentionally we have put the spotlight on them and prompted children to say these words when we know they cannot say them.

Therefore, the child has had the experience of not being able to say these words and therefore may have built the association of "I cannot say these words".

An example of a scenario may be that you are walking down the street when you bump into somebody you know. We know that your child won't be able to say "hello" yet we still unintentionally say: "Say hello". This has probably happened many times and so they now have had a lot of experience of being in situations where they have been prompted to say these specific words, yet being unable to do so.

When children with selective mutism are prompted to do something that they cannot do, they experience the negative cycle of reinforcement. They freeze, and when we rescue them by saying 'hello' for them, they experience relief that they have gotten out of the situation, and they have now learnt that 'I cannot do it'.

Therefore, they have probably had more experience being in situations where they have been prompted to say these specific words, they have been unable to say them, and therefore they have now built an association that these are words that they cannot say.