Being nervous and shy is normal for both adults and children. But if the idea of doing something social turns your preschooler into an anxious mess, it may be something else — they may be struggling with social anxiety.
If your child’s anxiety is keeping them from having normal interactions with others, read on to see some ways to address their social anxiety in a healthy, meaningful way.
What Is Social Anxiety?
In a nutshell, a person has social anxiety if they experience significant anxiety or self-consciousness when they sense they could be judged negatively by others. For kids, these situations include participating in classroom activities, asking for help in class, or joining in activities like team sports, parties, or school performances.
Your child may have social anxiety if they:
Cry, get angry, and have public tantrums a lot.
Avoid interactions with other people.
Are overly reliant on their parents or guardians.
Are afraid of going to school or taking part in social events/activities.
Refuse to speak in social situations.
Don’t ask for help at school.
But you may be thinking, “Everyone is scared to do those things. What’s the big deal?”
Yes, it’s true, most kids are shy about at least one thing in their life. (More on shyness in the next section.) But when anxiety is discussed, it’s talking about a different level of disruption. Social anxiety will upend your child’s entire life. The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation. The melt-downs they have, the anxiety that appears a week ahead of an event, or the daily struggle to convince them that going to school will be fun all point to something deeper than shyness.
Shyness vs. Social Anxiety
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding parents have is the difference between social anxiety and shyness.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shyness. Shyness, or being slow to warm up, is simply the temperament your child was born with. It takes them a bit longer to engage with new situations and new people. However, once the situation stops being new (which, admittedly, is different for every child), a shy child stops being nervous or scared. It may take a bit of literal hand holding and you praising them for being brave to overcome the newness, but it will eventually happen.
Social anxiety, like we said before, is persistent. A socially anxious child doesn’t warm up to new situations even after they stop being new. That’s because the risks of social interactions never go away for them whether a situation is new or not.
Overcoming Social Anxiety
Like all mental health issues, social anxiety doesn’t go away with the snap of your fingers. It will take love, patience, understanding, planning, and effort to help your child deal with their anxiety in a healthy way.
Here are some places to start. As always, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional if you have concerns, questions, or need help coming up with a more robust plan for your child.
Communicate and prepare. Do some detective work to find out exactly what your child is anxious about. (This could take several conversations.) Once you identify the issue, come up with detailed descriptions of what the social interaction will look like. So if they’re anxious about a party, tell them, “We will drive together in the van, and we will get to the party at 11. Once we’re there, we’ll eat food and play. Your friend Ana from down the street will be there, too. I’ll be there the whole time, and will sit nearby if you need me for any reason.”
Literally talk it out. Creating simple scripts for your child to follow or role-playing through a situation can really help an anxious kid. “Previewing” an event by showing your child how to introduce themselves, ask where the bathroom is, or decline an offer will make the situation feel less new and can help your child feel prepared for when the real event occurs.
Find a friend. Sometimes, a friendly face is all that’s required to lower your child’s anxiety.
Don’t immediately bail. Be discerning on when to push and when to call it off, but don’t immediately jump for the ejector button when your child is anxious. Leaving a stressful situation every time reinforces to your child that the answer to their anxiety is to run away. Sit on the sidelines, have them order only their drink at a restaurant, or negotiate a nonspeaking part in the upcoming play instead of not doing any of it at all.
Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Counseling with a trained therapist is always an option, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed by your child’s needs. This kind of therapy will help your child identify negative thought patterns and behaviors and change them.
Your Parenting Matters
SO … remember how these articles often include the line, “Be the example for your child”?
Well, here we are again.
There have been scientifically observed patterns between social anxiety in kids and parental anxiety and overcontrol. Here’s the summary from the study:
“Findings generally revealed that higher levels of parental anxiety, overcontrol, and rejection were associated with higher levels of social anxiety. Social support, acceptance and peer validation were all associated with lower social anxiety. Parental anxiety and validation from a peer were the strongest predictors of independent ratings of child social anxiety. Parental overcontrol and perceived social acceptance were the strongest predictors of child ratings of social anxiety.”
This isn’t to say that all social anxiety is caused by parenting style. There is a genetic element, too. However, those genes have to come from somewhere. Often, a child with social anxiety has a parent or loved one who also struggles with it.
If you are struggling with social anxiety or need help changing your parenting style to help your child with theirs, there is no shame in seeking out a mental health professional. Your state’s department of mental health and community health services often provide affordable mental health services to children and families dealing with anxiety. There are lots of affordable private practices to choose from, as well.
Social anxiety is exactly like other mental and physical health issues — something that can be overcome and managed if dealt with but can be extremely detrimental if ignored. With love, patience, and a plan, you can help your child manage their anxiety and set them up to where social interactions don’t interfere with their daily life.