Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mutism: The Meaning of Silence

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 10, 2012

Alina, six years old, did not speak for her entire kindergarten year. She learned to talk in full sentences by three, and she was a very bright and articulate child, but she was “scared” she told me in kindergarten so she never said one word. Her mom reports that she was not too worried about that, since she felt that Alina would speak when she wanted to. The psychoanalytic saw is that children become mute when there is a family secret. The child is afraid to say the wrong thing, so to make sure that does not happen, the child does not speak at all. Alina came to my attention, not because she was mute in kindergarten, but because the mother was concerned that she was mean to her younger sister, age four. I was perplexed by her history of mutism. To be mute, especially for an extended period requires an amazing amount of tenacity. It is like the anorexic who does not eat, even though they are starving. The control suggests that the child might feel out of control and so not speaking might be one way to feel that life has some order. My guess is that this relates to her relationship with her sister. Alina’s unhappiness might first be manifested by her mutism and now is manifested by her aggression to her sister. I am excited to see how my relationship with Alina unfolds. I am optimistic that together, Alina and I can work through play an understanding of what is troubling her.

4 Responses to “Mutism: The Meaning of Silence”

  1. Jon said

    So, Alina speaks, but did not speak in school? She speaks, because she spoke to you about being “scared.” Are there other places where she speaks or does not speak? What can be learned from those places, if they exist?

    • Shirah said

      Perhaps (likely) I was not clear. She did not speak last year, but this academic year she does speak. Yes, thinking about where she expresses herself verbally and where she does not is an extremely interesting area to think about. Her not speaking is a communication of sorts. More later. Thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    She was mute when she was younger so she wouldn’t say anything untoward to her younger sister, but now she is aggressive to her? Isn’t this the antithesis of being mute? Isn’t this the exact opposite behavior of mutism? What is she trying to express? And does she act normally in school and with her peers and exhibit this selective behavior just at home?

    • Shirah said

      She was mute when she was younger and now she is aggressive to her younger sister. Whether these two things are related is hard to say. I am just beginning to develop my hypotheses. Mutism and aggression are not opposites. They are different kinds of behaviors which signal distress. Now, she acts normally in school, but when she was mute, I would say she was “not normal” in school. Yes, now her main issue is her aggression to her sister. As time progresses I hope to have a deeper understanding of her internal dynamics. For now, I am left to keeping an open mind and considering different speculations. Thanks.

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