When I was a new mom, I had no idea what anxiety was.
I was aware of anxious feelings, but I don't know that I had an awareness that there was a name for the combination of symptoms that becomes a diagnosis of anxiety and I certainly never guessed that my children would battle these symptoms, or that it would have such an impact on my life as a parent. By the time I became a school counselor, I was well aware of the impact student mental health needs can have on a classroom.
One of the more common forms of anxiety in children is social anxiety. This typically occurs when your child struggles to deal with social interactions, both with people they know and strangers. This can make it hard for them to make friends, and can follow them as they get older as well. What I learned from my interactions with this kiddos is that although they are more fearful about their interactions with others, their need for peer connections and meaningful relationships doesn't decrease. In fact, it can be stronger in this kids, leaving them feeling very isolated.
While in some cases, therapeutic interventions are necessary to bring relief, there are many wonderful things adults can do to help kids who are struggling. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Know the Warning Signs
Before you can help your child with their social anxiety, you need to know if this is actually what they have. It is possible they are just introverted, where they prefer being alone in their thoughts, but don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder. So here are some common signs of a child with social anxiety:
· They have been withdrawing from activities
· It is hard for them to make friends
· They have become uncomfortable talking to teachers
· Your child avoids eye contact or fidgets a lot when talking to someone
· They have trouble communicating even at gatherings with friends or family
If any of these sound familiar, your child might be struggling with social anxiety. In some cases this can be seen as simply shyness, where a child needs additional support with unfamiliar settings or new people, determining if and how much their quality of life is impacted will help you to know if this needs additional treatment. I generally recommend checking with your family physician first, to have them recommend a provider who they trust for mental health services, but your school is also a great place to get a referral.
Don’t Push Them Too Much
Unlike kids who are shy and may need just a boost to get over fearful thoughts, pushing kids who are anxious too hard will usually lead to more pronounced challenges, such as defiance and even aggression. Once you know that your child has social anxiety, you can slowly start helping them work through it.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to push them too much. This is really important, because just forcing them to interact with different people often makes the anxiety worse, not better. Your therapist can help you gently expose your child to the things they are fearful of, starting with low fear activities or settings and then working their way up.
A common worry is that your child will never be okay in social settings and honestly that's generally not true. With healthy coping skills and a decrease in response that comes through intervention, most kids can learn to even enjoy social situations some over time. Have open communication with your child to discuss what they are struggling with and see if you can come up with a compromise they are comfortable with, but that leads them in the direction of dealing with their social anxiety.
Practice makes progress
For my oldest daughter, I learned one of the worst parts of her anxiety was replaying the potentially worst case scenario over and over again in her mind before an event even took place. We learned a good way to slowly help her face those fears and deal with social anxiety is to put them with someone else one-on-one. They might not feel comfortable speaking to someone in a group of people, but perhaps you can set up play dates with just one other child. This allows for a small amount of success that helps to challenge flawed through processes and helps them prepare for more challenging situations.
Kids with social anxiety can learn the tools they need with help from the adults in their lives. Every step in the right directions helps prepare them for their bright future.