You want your child to have friends. It can be devastating to watch them miss out on birthday parties, see them spend hours playing video games alone, or even struggle with their refusal to attend school. By the time you notice this trend, you may feel unsure of what is wrong or how to help.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is an avoidance of social situations due to fear of judgment or making mistakes. It is more than shyness. Your child feels fear, which prevents them from partaking in social activities. This is not usually a one-time occurrence. It is a compilation of multiple experiences in which a child was able to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
Social Anxiety Gets Stronger Over Time
How did this happen, you wonder? Simple. They were able to avoid a situation and get away with it. Perhaps they told you they had a stomachache and then missed a playdate, or a teacher allowed them to sit out during a game. Or they refused to get on the school bus, and you instead drove them to school. All of these situations may have seemed harmless at the time. In reality, you may have unknowingly reinforced for your child that they can succumb to uncomfortable feelings, and avoiding is the way to handle them. Instead of believing social activities are positive, your child may have established “rules” in their mind that say they are not. Despite your efforts to reverse this inclination, they refuse to budge, and the vicious cycle of avoidance is solidified. Without intervention, this could continue as your child gets older and prevent them from developing future relationships and accomplishing life goals.
There is Help for Your Child
Fortunately, social anxiety does not have to be a life-long condition. Your child can recognize uncomfortable feelings do not need to drive their actions. When they feel uncomfortable in a social situation, this is a sign that they perceive these experiences as negative and ones to avoid. However, by learning to change their thoughts and behavior, your child may no longer be controlled by anxiety. Instead, they can be taught how to be in charge of their reactions to social situations. You can help with this in several ways.
- Breathing and other relaxation techniques can help your child lessen physical reactions to anxiety. When your child is anxious about a social situation, they usually have heightened physical arousals, such as stomachaches or headaches. Practicing breathing and other relaxation techniques with your child can help them notice this is just their anxiety talking and that they can take charge of their reactions to it.
- Teach your child flexibility and tolerance, not knowing what will happen. If you want your child to participate in an activity, such as a sport, let them know that they will try something different for a short period. It may or may not be enjoyable for them, but you want them to try. Reinforce that even though they might not know what to expect, you are proud of them for attempting it. Next time, you will encourage them to try something else or participate in the activity for a longer time.
- Make social experiences fun for your child. You are likely pushing your child outside of their comfort zone. As they practice tolerating their feelings, start with more enjoyable activities. This reinforces that social experiences can be pleasurable. As your child practices engaging in more social situations, you can introduce others. It is important to give them as many opportunities to be successful.
- Celebrate your child’s successes, even if they seem small to you. Perhaps your child just practiced placing an order at a restaurant or saying hello to another child at the park. This might seem like an ordinary action to you, but for a child with social anxiety that fears outcomes, just engaging in a tiny uncomfortable social task is huge. When you appreciate them for these actions, you encourage them to continue taking chances and show them that you are proud of their attempts. This can be very validating and motivating for children who longingly seek the approval of their parents.