Differences Between Shyness and Selective Mutism

There are many differences between shyness and selective mutism. We'll teach you 5 of them and the importance of seeking professional help.
Differences Between Shyness and Selective Mutism

Last update: 28 December, 2022

Although recognizing them can be difficult for non-expert eyes, in practice, there are several differences between shyness and selective mutism. Knowing when you’re dealing with the former or the latter is very important, as the treatment options vary depending on the case. Today we’ll review some criteria that allow distinguishing both phenomena in little ones.

Most children develop problems establishing interpersonal relationships, speaking in public, and feeling confident with strangers. This is considered normal. Over time, almost all of them outgrow these behaviors, and they do so to the extent that they’re exposed to social situations (like going to school, for example). Let’s see the main differences between shyness and selective mutism.

5 differences between shyness and selective mutism

Informally, withdrawn behaviors are usually immediately classified as shyness. Although it’s true that shyness is statistically much more common, the truth is that millions of patients around the world suffer from selective mutism. Let’s look at five differences that are useful for distinguishing them as different phenomena.

1. Restricted communication in the face of specific situations

As specialists indicate, selective mutism is characterized by the total absence of speech in specific social situations, while speech seems to be normal in other situations (in family contexts, for example). Selective mutism is restricted to specific times only, and most of the time, it manifests itself in the school setting.

Shyness isn’t as restrictive when expressing communicative restrictions. While it’s true that researchers point out that shyness tends to worsen in more social contexts, the dividing line isn’t as pronounced as it is in the case of selective mutism. A child with selective mutism will withdraw completely in social situations, while the withdrawal will be much less in shy ones.

2. Degree of adaptability over time

Differences between shyness and selective mutism persist at various ages
Although many of the manifestations of shyness tend to diminish over the years, selective mutism can worsen.

Shyness is a natural reaction for most children. This usually reduces as the child’s exposed to social contexts. That is, as they interact with other children at school and with other strangers, their shyness is minimized. This doesn’t happen in selective mutism. Experts classify it as a persistent psychiatric disorder, one that doesn’t lessen over time.

In fact, and in the absence of treatment, mutism often gets worse. It’s for this reason that adolescents and adults can also experience it. Unsurprisingly, this interferes with academic, professional, and personal achievement. Early detection of the disorder is very important to avoid these complications.

3. Other symptoms that accompany the phenomenon

Selective mutism is a highly heterogeneous disorder. Despite this, children who develop it not only show a restriction when speaking in specific contexts. Almost everyone also develops social withdrawal, tantrums, disobedience, anxiety disorders, speech and language problems, developmental disorders, and others.

In fact, formerly, selective mutism was considered a symptom of anxiety disorders, and also of developmental disorders. Many associated it (and continue to associate it) with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Shy children do not always manifest all of this, so it is another difference between selective mutism and shyness.

4. Different practical manifestations

The differences between shyness and selective mutism are greatly appreciated in childhood.
Each case is very specific and depends on the context, so shyness or selective mutism can be accompanied by other symptoms.

Shyness often varies in the degree to which it manifests itself. The intensity isn’t the same in all the little ones; so it can be mild, moderate, or severe. Given the patterns that accompany selective mutism, researchers differentiate between several subtypes. We’ll highlight five of the most important:

  • Global: Minor general and academic deterioration
  • Low-functioning: Academic problems, sensory and executive problems, and family psychopathology
  • Sensory/pathology: Delays in motor skills, oppositional behavior and lability, sensory integration disorder, and others
  • Anxiety/language: Anxiety and speech and language disorders
  • Emotional/Behavioral: Executive functioning difficulties, oppositional and labile behavior

In this sense, selective mutism is a much more complex phenomenon; so much so that it can be classified into several well-differentiated subtypes. This isn’t the case with shyness, which in general only tends to vary in intensity. It’s interesting to know that both selective mutism and shyness are more frequent in women.

5. Classification by experts

Another difference between selective mutism and shyness is found in the classifications of experts. Shyness isn’t a disorder, while selective mutism is. Selective mutism is described in the latest edition of the American Psychological Association (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s classified as a childhood disorder, something that doesn’t happen with shyness.

Shyness is more of an emotion or feeling rather than a disease or disorder. Everyone experiences shyness to a greater or lesser extent, it all depends on the context in which a person has to function. As little ones are just exploring their social skills, it’s natural that their degree of shyness is greater or more noticeable.

Only a qualified professional can determine when a child, adolescent, or adult has selective mutism. Therefore, don’t hesitate to consult a professional in case you have any doubts about it. The indicated criteria are useful for guessing the possible diagnosis, although the professional will have the last word.

  • Eggum ND, Eisenberg N, Spinrad TL, et al. Development of Shyness: Relations With Children’s Fearfulness, Sex, and Maternal Behavior. Infancy. 2009;14(3):325-345.
  • Kearney CA, Rede M. The Heterogeneity of Selective Mutism: A Primer for a More Refined Approach. Front Psychol. 2021;12:700745. Published 2021 Jun 10.
  • Mulligan, C. A., Hale, J. B., & Shipon-Blum, E. Selective mutism: identification of subtypes and implications for treatment. Journal of education and human development. 2015; 4(1): 79-96.
  • Muris P, Ollendick TH. Current Challenges in the Diagnosis and Management of Selective Mutism in Children. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2021;14:159-167. Published 2021 Feb 16.

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