Ask the expert: ‘Would a dog help my daughter’s selective mutism?’

Improvements in selective mutism are gradual. The key is to slowly expand progress

In a previous column I answered a question onabout a five-5 year-old girl with selective mutismwho spoke only to her family and not in school. In the answer, I described how she could be supported and gradually helped to talk to other children and adults in school. Subsequently, I received two further questions about helping children with selective mutism which I thought might be useful to answer together.

Q My little girl is seven with selective mutism. She is doing great in school and is starting to talk more often, but outside school she is not doing too good. She goes to lots of different activities, such as GAA, swimming, playing the tin whistle, and girl guides. However, she communicates very little when at these activities, though she still goes.

Somebody mentioned to me that a having a dog might help improve her confidence. She is keen to get one. Do you think having a pet would really help? She certainly would like one.

A Generally, improvements in selective mutism are gradual. It is great that your daughter is doing well in school and beginning to speak more often there. Now you want to slowly expand this progress to other areas in her life. The key is to be patient and to go at her pace.


One thing that struck me in reading your question is that it is important to make sure she is not doing too many extra- curricular activities. Focus only on ones she enjoys and wants to do.

If she is tired and stressed participating in some of the activities, this might be counterproductive. Indeed, what she might simply need is more free play time at home when she can just hang out and perhaps have friends over.

In the relaxed environment of home, she might make more progress in speaking with friends and adults who visit.

You ask an interesting question about whether getting her a pet or a dog might help her confidence.

Indeed, there is good evidence that pets can help children in many different ways, such as giving them a companion to love and be loved by, special responsibilities in taking care of the pet and even encouraging them to take exercise walking the dog.

In one study, parents and children were asked to rate sources of happiness in their lives.

While they largely agreed on their top five sources (getting on with parents, enjoying school, having friends, and so on), there was one striking area of disagreement – children included having a pet in their top five ingredients of happiness whereas parents did not.

In your daughter’s situation, while a dog might increase her wellbeing and happiness, it may not immediately improve her selective mutism – unless you set it up that having a dog brings her into social situations, such as joining a dog-walking club or going to dog-training lessons or simply having social contact with other dog owners.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that as getting a pet is such a big family decision that entails a lot of responsibility for everyone, you would have to think about it very carefully.

Q 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?

A 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.

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.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering talks on Positive Self-Esteem in Cork on November 4th and Dublin on November 30th. See for details