Social anxiety in children is more than just a fear of interacting with or making friends. Children with social anxiety are fearful of situations in which they may be judged or scrutinized by others.
Children who experience social anxiety may be triggered by different situations such as speaking in front of others, reading out loud, fear of being evaluated by others, fear of offending others, fear of embarrassment, and fear of conversing with unfamiliar people. Some social situations that may also trigger the anxiety could be drop-off time at school, team practices, and even seeing some family members.
When children are faced with going into an unknown situation, they may react more intensely and can cause significant distress on the child. Children are less likely to engage in social settings.
Social anxiety can appear in many different forms:
- Worries anxiety symptoms may be evaluated negatively by peers
- Anxiety may manifest as tantrums, clinging, crying, freezing up, not willing to speak
- Fear or anxiety may be out of proportion compared to the actual situation
- Anxiety causes disruption in areas of functioning
- Dread of upcoming social events
- Excessive clinging to familiar people
Coping Strategies for Children with Anxiety
The first step to help your child cope with anxiety is to name it. Children know they feel fearful and anxious in some social settings, but they may not know why. As parents, we need to help them connect the dots between their feelings, emotional and physical responses, and triggers. Teaching your child the ways in which anxiety impacts thinking and behavior is the next step to work through these big scary feelings.
There are a variety of tools children can learn to use when they’re feelings anxious or overwhelmed by their feelings. Relaxation strategies can help your child calm down from their scary feelings.
- Deep breathing
- This strategy is one of the best ways to calm a rapid heart rates, shallow breathing and dizziness. Have your child breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then exhale for four counts.
- Guided imagery
- Tell your child a relaxing story and have your child take an adventure in their mind. Have your child practice deep breathing while you tell the story.
- Muscle relaxation
- Anxious children tend to tense their muscles when they experience stress. Have your child make a fist and hold it tight for five seconds, then slowly release. After the hands, move on to the arms, neck and shoulders, and feet and legs and repeat this process.
Negative beliefs can reinforce anxious thoughts. These beliefs can be caused by assuming the worst case scenario, believing that others see them through a negative lens, overreacting and personalizing situations.
Another way to help your child reframe negative thoughts is to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. If your child says, “My teacher thinks I’m dumb because I’m bad at reading,” help them recognize the negative thought by grounding it in reality that their teacher is there to help them learn, not judge them. Replace that negative thought with a positive thought like, “I’m having a hard time reading right now, but my teacher will help me get better.”
Teach problem solving skills
Children with social anxiety tend to avoid engaging in situations that cause anxiety. Although it may seem like the best solution possible, it can worsen anxiety over time. Teaching your child to work through feelings of fear and anxiety can enhance their problem-solving skills.
One way you can teach your child problem-solving skills is to identify the trigger and brainstorm how they can overcome their anxiety. For example, if your child fears speaking in class, have your child practice in the mirror, and when time comes to speak in class, your child can find a friendly face.
Learn friendship skills
Although you can’t make friends for your child, you can help your child practice their friendship skills! Here are some skills you can work on with your child:
- Sliding in and out of groups
- Conversation starters
- Listening and responding
- Asking follow-up questions/making follow-up statements
You can also help your child begin a conversation by finding a friendly face and saying “I like your shirt!” You can then ask your child if they like it, too. This is a good icebreaker for children who are scared to make the first step.