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Causes - Selective mutism

There is no single known cause of selective mutism. But it is an anxiety disorder. Selective mutism is an intense fear (phobia) of talking in certain situations.

A child with selective mutism often appears anxious. They can find everyday situations difficult.

Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children and is more common in girls.

Selective mutism is rarely caused by a single traumatic event.

It is more common in children:

  • with speech and language difficulties
  • who are bilingual
  • from ethnic or minority backgrounds
  • who have sensory processing difficulties - for example, are overly sensitive to noise
  • with a family history of anxiety disorders or depression
  • with certain personality traits - for example, they are sensitive, shy, anxious or a perfectionist
  • who have psychological difficulties, such as low self-esteem or depression

Anxiety disorders in children


Things that can trigger selective mutism in children include:

  • anxiety when they leave their parents to go to preschool or school (separation anxiety)
  • unfamiliar settings
  • loud, busy places
  • being bullied or teased
  • situations that can make them feel overwhelmed
  • fear of making a mistake
  • fear of being embarrassed by others

Page last reviewed: 29 January 2024
Next review due: 29 January 2027