13 Tips to Help Children Manage Social Anxiety

By Dr. Laura Markham

“Probably the worst thing to do is to say, ‘Don’t be shy. Don’t be quiet’. This is not about trying to change the child’s temperament. It’s about respecting and honouring temperament and variation, and helping children navigate the world with their own instruments.” – Dr. K.R. Merikangas

Parents often ask me how to help children who are “shy”. But what does “shy” even mean?

Some children who are considered “shy” are highly sensitive, meaning very aware of and strongly affected by their environment. Others are introverted, meaning that they need time away from other people to renew their energy. Some children are so absorbed in their own projects and ideas that they’re simply less interested in social interaction. Some feel more anxious when their “attachment people” aren’t there as backup.

And the rest of us who think we’re “shy” usually mean that we feel awkward or anxious in social situations. A large NIMH study in 2011 found that half of all teenagers in the United States think of themselves as “shy”. In fact, half of all adults think of themselves as “shy”, and many more say that they were “shy” as children. That’s a lot of us. And yet most of those adults feel able to successfully handle most social situations they encounter, at least most of the time. They’ve gained confidence through their experience that even if they’re sometimes a bit apprehensive, they’ll be able to manage.

So let’s say, for the purposes of this article, that you’re reading this because you want to support your child to become more comfortable in social situations. Hopefully, you appreciate your unique child, who probably notices social nuances that other children miss. But it’s natural to worry if your child seems to feel anxious with other people. We all want our children to make friends easily, to feel comfortable asking questions at school, to speak up for themselves.

The good news is that most kids can learn to manage social anxiety so they can connect happily with others, enter new groups, and speak up for themselves. Some just need a little extra support.

 1. Nurture your child by noticing her needs and responding to them

Highly sensitive baby chimps given to extremely nurturing mothers became leaders in their group, while their equally sensitive siblings raised by less responsive chimp mothers seemed anxious and fearful throughout life. Responsive mothering helps sensitive little ones learn to calm themselves and manage their reactions. That allows their heightened sensitivity to become an asset, because it makes them more aware of the needs of their peers and better at negotiating group situations.

2. Empathise with your child’s worries and avoid shaming him

Acknowledging what your child feels, without negative judgement, helps him to feel good about himself. Giving him the impression that there is something wrong with him will just make him feel worse about himself, and therefore more insecure. Empathising with your child will also help him develop empathy, which will enhance his social skills and help him connect with others.

3. Teach your child to trust their inner compass — and that discomfort is okay

Most of us think that when we’re uncomfortable, we should run in the other direction. But discomfort is part of most new situations, and that means it is part of how we grow. Teach your child that it is okay to feel uncomfortable. When she feels uncomfortable, her job is to notice that, and soothe herself so that she can think clearly.

Then, evaluate the situation. Is there actual danger? In that case, seek trustworthy help.

But danger is rare. Most of the time, discomfort signals a new situation. In that case, maybe there is something new to learn, or someone she will enjoy meeting. Then, her job is to reassure herself, keep paying attention to the situation, and support herself to take small steps toward engaging with the newness. Over time, positive experiences will build trust, and she may come to enjoy and value that process of discovery. 

4. Model confident behaviour with other people. Kids learn from watching us

That means being friendly to strangers, offering help to others, and modeling a relaxed attitude about social interactions of all kinds.

5. Teach your child basic social skills to respond to both adults and children.

Kids often need to be taught to make eye contact, shake hands, smile, and respond to polite chit-chat appropriately. Make games out of social skills and practise at home. Just grab two teddy bears and have them act out scenarios in a funny way to get your child laughing, which defuses the child’s anxiety. During your show, ask your child frequently “What should he say? What should she do?”.

6. Help your child learn how to make friends

Role play with your child how to notice and respond when another child initiates, how to join a game at the playground, how to introduce themselves to another child at a party, and how to initiate a playdate. For instance, kids who are successful in joining groups of kids usually observe first, and find a way to fit into the group, rather than just barging in. It can really help to read books about social skills with your child and then role play.

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