How best to help my granddaughter with Selective Mutism?

Arising from your recent article, I would like your advice on how to manage our granddaughter. She was very vocal with us until the age of four, albeit she was shy with other adults.

She is now six and talks to her parents and her young friends but she has been muting with us when she visits or when we mind her, and also with other adults. She is at play therapy and has done speech and drama. Her parents find it frustrating, as we do, and we all have to show patience. Is there anything else we can do to help her?

Your question highlights how selective mutism can be frustrating for grandparents and other close family members. It is hard when your grandchild is mute or shy when they visit or when you care for them. Naturally you want to be close to them and make sure they are comfortable in your home, so it can feel almost like a rejection when they don’t talk.

However, as mentioned in the Q&A from another parent, selective mutism is a form of anxiety, where the child experiences a “freeze reaction” and can’t speak, no matter how much they want to. As you say in your question, the goal is to be very patient and to help her overcome it gradually.

Respond warmly
The key is to continue to respond warmly to her in normal ways and not to let her see your frustration. This can mean: Don’t make a big deal about the fact she is not speaking. Don’t put her under pressure or “bribe” her to speak. Concentrate on doing normal fun things when she visits and don’t avoid doing normal family things just because she is not speaking. Make things easier for her, but don’t let her miss out.

Let her know that you understand it can be scary to speak sometimes and reassure her that she will be able to speak as soon as she is ready.

Focus on small steps
Reassure her that non-verbal communication, such as smiling and gesturing, is fine until she feels better about talking. Don’t make a big deal or show surprise if she does speak a little bit, as this might cause her embarrassment and close her down. Instead, respond normally as you would when a child speaks and repeat what she says, ask a question, and so on. Also, talk to her parents in private about the best ways to help your granddaughter.

From your question, it sounds like she is attending services, so there may well be a formal programme or some more guidelines that you can follow to help her speak in your home.

There are also some lovely toys and games you can use with selectively mute children that you might find useful as a grandparent such as the Talking Tin ( which can help children develop their speaking and listening skills by recording and playing back speech, music or sound effects.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents visit