Social Anxiety: How to Help Your Child?
Social Anxiety: How to Help Your Child?
Social Anxiety is the fear of social interactions and feeling uncomfortable around a group of people. Children with Social Anxiety are often misunderstood as being shy. Social Anxiety is more prevalent in children with autism spectrum disorder. The “shy” label may be somewhat accurate, but it does nothing to honor the child or help him become more confident about who he is.
These children often want to be social, but their fear dominates the draw of being with people. They may have an elevated fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in front of people, or they may struggle with low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. It’s important to find out what is causing your child’s difficulty in social settings, and develop proactive ways for her to be comfortable.
Here are the ways to help your child with anxiety:
1. Connect With Your Child
You can use the PACE model to engage with your children and help them feel safe. The PACE method stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy. These four reactions or methods of interaction help to release some of the anxiety associated with a situation by letting the child know that you are calm, relaxed, and able to understand and help them.
Using playfulness shows your child that you, as the person who keeps them safe, are feeling relaxed and open, allowing them to begin to feel more relaxed.
“No, I just don’t want to play football anymore. I’d rather play with you.”
“Great! I love playing with you too.”
Showing acceptance of your child’s feelings is especially important when your child has anxiety because so often anxiety can be brushed off as irrational. If your child learns that they can come to you with their anxiety and feel heard, they feel safer now and with future anxieties.
“Maybe you’re worried about missing a goal tomorrow. I know when I focus on scoring in sports, I feel really anxious and pressured to do well. I wonder if you’re feeling nervous because you’re not sure if you’ll make goals?”
Introducing a curiosity about the child’s feelings is a start to help tease out what the child is feeling. Sometimes, you’re spot on, and the child feels understood immediately. If you’re incorrect, though, your child may tell you what they’re actually concerned about. Or you can keep using curiosity until you uncover the source of your child’s anxiety.
“Well, I did miss a goal at the last game, and John was mean to me because I let down the WHOLE team.”
“That is so tough! Feeling like you let down the whole team is such a big, heavy feeling.”
Showing empathy about the child’s feelings helps them to feel connected to you, knowing that you understand HOW they are feeling, not just what they are saying.
This model helps the child to feel heard and connected, two factors which can help to support the child in scary situations. Once they are interacting with you in a space that feels both safe and empathetic, you can start to work on techniques to alleviate the social anxiety that your child is feeling.
2. Teach Your Child About Social Anxiety
Have open conversations with them about the reason anxiety exists – to keep us safe. As humans were evolving, primal brain parts helped to keep our species alive by sending distress signals when something was wrong. These stress signals enabled us to act quickly to make ourselves safe again, and once we were safe, our stress levels returned to normal.
Now that we don’t live in an environment with many immediate stressors like lions waiting to eat us, our brains sometimes get stuck in stress, which leads to anxiety. This is mostly because most of our problems aren’t immediate, like lions; they’re longer-term: like a football game tomorrow.
So while we used to be able to run from the lion, be safe, and feel calm, now we have time to worry about a game and then continue worrying. And because our imaginations are so spectacular, too much time to worry can end in a lot of anxiety.
One of the key ways to help your kids overcome social anxiety is to model the process yourself. You can do this by following these 3 simple steps:
- admit when you’re nervous about something
- do that thing (maybe even in front of your child)
- report back to them how it went, especially if it went well.
This both teaches your child that you understand social anxiety yourself and that you have ways to help yourself through it, which means you can help them as well.
3. Prepare Your Child
If you know a situation is coming up that could cause your child anxiety, prepare them as much as possible. Detail what will happen, when, how people might respond, and what you’ll be doing in the situation.
Give them as much information as possible so that the situation is familiar when it arrives. Preparation doesn’t just have to be talking, though. It can be reading, role-playing, and anything else that makes them more comfortable.
If your child is nervous about performing in a school play, you can read books about overcoming that nervousness.
You can help your child to participate in imaginative play, where you and they are both performing the play in front of an audience of stuffed animals.
Everyone can look at pictures of kids performing in plays.
You can even tour the theater – a couple of times if need be – before the date of the play so that the environment feels familiar once the time comes.
4. Focus On Progress, Not Perfection
Social anxiety is heavily linked to perfectionism. Fear of failure, fear of looking bad in front of friends, or fear of not meeting a goal all contribute heavily to a child’s anxious feelings surrounding a situation.
Help your child to focus on the process instead of the goal. Engage them with talking about how fun it is to play sports, and how much you love to hear them practicing the flute.
Remind them of the power of “yet.” You’re not an expert YET, and your child isn’t an expert fiddler YET. You can se this “Power of YET” printable worksheet for children available here.
Practice IS the goal” is a mantra you can use in your home. Finding the comfort in the practice, and taking joy in the journey are cliches that have actual value – reminding us to ENJOY the process instead of focusing on the goal.
By doing this, you stretch out your happiness, because it isn’t just limited to the few minutes of excitement when you reach a goal. Instead, you’re enthusiastic the entire process because you see your progress and delight in the doing.
5. Learn When To Step In And When To Step Back
This one is tricky but when a parent hovers over an anxious child, it can make them more anxious – because they feel the parent’s worry. Try to step back, but always be close by if they need you.
On the other hand, you can intervene when it seems like a panic attack or episode is coming up, removing your child from the situation temporarily to remind them of coping skills or just to give them a break before encouraging them to go back.
6. Teach Coping Techniques
A variety of coping techniques are available, from those that can be done in a situation to those that are prepared for earlier – like sitting calmly to help quiet the mind.
Teach your child some techniques that you can do together, and some that they can do when they don’t have you.
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