I wanted to say thank you. I really did.

Not just because my mom had taught me my manners well, but because I was truly grateful. Not rude or snotty like my teachers called me as early as preschool.

Sometimes I would manage to squeak it out in a whisper. But it was always too late, or they never heard.

Fast-forward almost 30 years and I learned there’s a name for this suffocating silence when I Googled “Why does my toddler shut down in social situations?”

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Selective Mutism. It’s such an ugly term given to such sweet kids. But at least it gives them a voice.

The SMart (Selective Mutism, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Treatment) Center defines Selective Mutism as a “childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings.”

Key words: select social settings. My son knows his pleases and thank yous and uses them generously at home with mommy and daddy. Especially when he wants fruit snacks for breakfast or an extra story at bedtime.

My son, like most children with Selective Mutism, is loud and outgoing at home and in places he feels comfortable. In fact, his speech has been remarkably advanced since infancy. 

But I came home in tears from his friend’s birthday party today. Another little boy had given him an extra glow stick from his party bag because my son had lost his own.

“Say ‘thank you’, honey,” I prompted.

Silence. Followed by shadows of judgement passing over the faces of other parents within earshot. That same look I used to see on the faces of my teachers, babysitters, and even family members. 

I was used to it. I rubbed my son’s fuzzy little head, thanked the little boy myself, and assured his father we were “working on it”.

But what, exactly, is it?

This question is what led to the Googling, the “aha!” moment after reading about Selective Mutism, and the tears.

Selective Mutism is genetic. My son is going through the same fear and pain that I experienced as a child, and it breaks my heart. Kids eventually grow out of it. But it’s incredibly painful while they’re going through it. Not just emotionally painful. Selective Mutism stems from anxiety that can cause stomach aches, headaches, and chest pain, just to name a few. 

So please, parents, teachers, caregivers: the next time a child seemingly refuses to say please and thank you, or follow any societal norms of etiquette for that matter, think of me. Think of my son. We are not trying to be rude. And although you may be trying to help, pushing a child with Selective Mutism to speak is actually harmful. Please trust that I’m doing everything I can to help my child. And please, just let it go.

Jessica Mautone

Jessica is a first-time, Stay-At-Home mom who loves to write as an outlet for the stress that comes along with raising a strong-minded little boy and two yappy dogs. Credit for her creative inspiration goes to good wine and frequent travel.