The back-to-school season is typically a time when social anxiety can become more noticeable or begin to interfere with our children’s daily routines and behaviours. Two plus years of pandemic life have certainly added additional worries and unpredictability when it comes to how our kids make sense of the world.
What is social anxiety in children?
Social anxiety is typically described in children who have difficulty meeting other children or joining groups or who avoid social situations in which they might become the focus or stand out, such as having to answer questions in class or speak in front of others.
The signs of social anxiety can go beyond social behaviour and extend to physical symptoms such as nausea, stomach aches, shakiness, and flushing. However, both the emotional and physical symptoms can easily go unnoticed by parents/teachers and caregivers because children with social anxiety can often resort to being quiet, obedient, and reluctant to share their struggle.
How to support a child with social anxiety
Social anxiety should be acknowledged and supported so that children feel validated and heard in their struggle. This can begin by talking about it together or even sharing stories about worries parents/caregivers had themselves when they were younger.
To help externalize the anxiety, work with your child to come up with a name for it. Perhaps even give it a colour and shape. Talk about the anxiety as something separate from the child. Come up with a list of how it tries to get in the way, and then collaborate on ideas for how to ask anxiety to give your child some space. For example, “What if we tell Anxiety what to expect before we get there?” Role-playing can be very helpful for this kind of work.
Next, have your child challenge the thoughts that Anxiety causes by looking for evidence about what is true and what it is only a thought, by asking questions such as: “How do you know that?” Recalling other situations in which your child was able to cope despite their anxiety can help to provide evidence that Anxiety isn’t always telling them the truth about what they can do.
How to help your child navigate social situations
It’s a good idea to start as small as possible when practising social situations. Begin by reassuring your child that you will help them try to the best of their ability and that if Anxiety comes, it’s ok for them to take a break. Scolding or forcing your child should be avoided as it can cause them to internalize a sense of failure and contribute to greater anxiety in the long run.
If you need to speak for your child, take a moment to see if they can try themselves first. Then, ask them if it’s okay for you to help them with their response “this time” in order to model how to manage the social situation positively and without distress.
What to do if you need help to support your child
If you feel your child needs more help than you are able to provide, it’s a good idea to check in with their family doctor. You can also book an appointment with a mental health care provider that specializes in anxiety and children and who can also direct you to additional community resources.
Let others who spend time with your child know that they are struggling, as it may not be obvious in settings like school. Share the strategies that you are using at home so there is consistency and predictability.
Remember to check in with yourself
When our children struggle, it can trigger a lot of our own emotions and thoughts. Find a supportive outlet for managing your own emotions and check in and ground yourself before and after supporting your child. Finally, follow your instincts about your child’s needs, you know them best.
Louise Gleeson is a Registered Therapist (Qualifying) with College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. One of Louise’s areas of interest includes family relationships and parenting. Louise uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help her clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.