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Is My Child Quiet or Could it Be a Disorder?

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

One of the most reliable findings in the study of people is that they have varying dispositions. We differ in our energy levels, interests, and in the amount of social interaction that we like. Children too are different from one another. Studies find that even young infants react to situations in a variety of ways. Some have high levels of curiosity and attend to sights and sounds with great relish. Others are calm and quiet and are pleased when others approach them, but do not make many sounds to attract attention. Still others have a high level of activity and can be overly reactive to sights and sounds. The variations in disposition that people, including infants and children, show include a range of interest in and responses to social interaction with others. The level of a person’s social interest and comfort can be fairly stable over time and may be a source of concern for parents.

Some infants and children have an inhibited disposition that includes a hesitancy to respond to novel situations, including new social situations. As infants, inhibited children often pull back from toys, people, and situations that they have not encountered before. They may observe from a distance and show real distress if approached too quickly. The physical reactions of these children show increased heart rates and changes in their brain activity that suggest that they perceive new situations as potentially dangerous. Yet, given time to observe the situations, these infants usually warm up and get involved in typical ways. Studies have found that about 8% of young children have an inhibited reaction to novelty. Long-term studies of these children find that many of them continue to be inhibited as they grow older and they are prone to experience anxiety in new settings and in social interactions.

When children are anxious about social interaction, they withdraw from contact or engage in contact with other children or adults only after a very long warm-up period. They may refrain from joining other children at parties, on the playground, or in school settings. At times, they will not speak with adults outside of their family and cling to parents when approached. Selective mutism is a specific form of social anxiety in which children speak very openly at home with family members, but they are not able to comfortably talk in other settings with other people. Parents may notice this in restaurants or stores or when children are introduced to a new adult or child or, in some cases, a family relative that is not highly familiar to the child. At times, parents learn about the problem from school staff when the child enters preschool or Kindergarten. Sometimes, parents are surprised and doubtful about the reports because their child is just like other children when parents are around and show no hesitation to talk or play. This form of social anxiety is seen in about 1% of children and is usually noticed in preschool or Kindergarten. The typical course for a child with selective mutism is not clear. However, it does not seem to be temporary for many children. Teens and adults who have had the condition report that it takes years to overcome. Our experience has been that most cases do not resolve for a long time.

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