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Situational Mutism: Another Example of Temporary Adolescent Insanity

Upset teen with mom in the background

A common but mistaken notion about children is that their power of speech begins to fail them during their teenage years. What was formerly a colorful and appealing way of expressing one's self and one's views of life dwindles down to minimal responses such as "No", "Don't know", "Nothin"," and "Whatever". It can almost seem as if they forgot how to talk. 

This is not the case, however. They are merely temporarily mute. This occurs almost exclusively in the presence of adults, who are mostly, if not solely, responsible for this condition.  

Adolescents learn fairly quickly that the more they talk with and around adults, the more they open themselves to adult judgments, criticisms, lectures, and warnings. It's not that teenagers feel they have nothing to learn from adults. It's merely their perception, mostly accurate, that the majority of the talk directed at them by adults takes those forms. If adult talk included a lot of other more appealing forms, such as genuine and non-judgmental interest (e.g., in their favorite music, sports team, movie star, color, etc., etc.), acceptance, admiration, and appreciation, the teenagers would be more likely to talk with the adults.  

Note that the situational mutism teenagers exhibit around adults is not exhibited around their friends. Around their friends they talk a lot. That's because their friends are much less likely to judge, criticize, lecture, and warn than they are to joke, admire, notice, or appreciate. 

Another reason why teenagers talk so infrequently to adults is that adults select times to speak with teenagers that are convenient for the adult, not the teenager. As a result, this conversation time usually costs teenagers something, meaning it interferes with what they were doing or were about to do. If the time selected were actually convenient for the teenager, he or she would be more inclined to talk. 

If your teenager is afflicted with situational mutism and you would like to cure it, I have two parenting tips.  First, when you talk to your teen, make sure you have at least four or five times as many positive things to say (interest, acceptance, admiration, and appreciation) as negative things (judgment, criticism, lecturing, and warning).  Second, pick a time to talk that is convenient for your son or daughter, even if it might be inconvenient for you.

Then, be careful - your teen may talk your ear off.