Social anxiety can happen at any age. And kids are not exempt.
Alongside the difficult events of the past few years, children are presenting traits of social anxiety at alarming rates.
As parents, caregivers, family members, and teachers, we have the ability to help children overcome their social anxiety so they can confidently continue with life, living it to the max and focusing on just being a kid.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is exactly what it sounds like – anxiety caused when around people.
But it’s quite a misunderstood concept. Most people assume that all people that suffer from social anxiety are introverted and shy. That they don’t like being around people and prefer to go about life alone.
And while people can fall into this category, anyone can suffer from social anxiety, even the most extroverted life of the party in existence.
How does social anxiety manifest in children?
Before you aim to help your child overcome social anxiety, you need to know what you’re looking for.
For children, social anxiety can manifest as:
Avoidance of social situations
Children may choose to forgo school clubs for activities they love over fears of judgement from their peers. They may also be reluctant to go to school because they don’t feel comfortable around others.
Intense fear or worry about social situations
Children may express that they don’t want to go to certain places because they are worried about the way they will be perceived, or that they feel panicked around a lot of people.
They may not be able to express this so eloquently, especially at a younger age, so it’s important to really listen and read between the lines.
Physical symptoms such as sweating, racing heart, or feeling dizzy or sick in social situations
You may notice that your child exhibits classic physical symptoms when around other people such as fidgeting, sweating, heavy, shallow breathing, etc.
You’ll notice that when they enter a safe space, this will usually stop pretty quickly.
Extreme self-consciousness in social situations
You might notice your child trying to hide behind you or stay towards the back of the room to avoid attention from others.
They may also exhibit behaviour such as tugging on their clothes, hiding their face with their hands or hair, and trying to make themselves as physically small as possible to avoid detection.
Regular tantrums, particularly surrounding social events
Children are still developing both their maturity and their vocabulary. They may not know how to express their complicated feelings to you yet. As a result, the tumultuous emotions can lead to children throwing tantrums.
Difficulty making and keeping friends
Some children with social anxiety find it hard to make or keep friends as they feel incredibly sceptical of social situations and unsure of others’ motives.
Trouble with schoolwork or other activities due to anxiety
Anxiety can be a debilitating disorder that takes over your entire life, leaving you in a constant state of alertness. As such, children suffering the horrible effects of social anxiety may find they schoolwork interrupted by it.
How to help children overcome social anxiety in five steps
While social anxiety is tough for anyone to deal with, we’ve curated five of the best courses of action you can take to help empower your child and start them on the road to recovery.
1. Teach them how to understand their thoughts and feelings
One of the best gifts you can ever give your child is the ability to understand and explore themselves fully. And when it comes to social anxiety, this is the first vital step on the road to recovery.
They are dealing with a lot of emotions and unhelpful thoughts, and to overcome them, they need to unpackage and understand them, first.
There are a few ways you can do this.
Talk out your feelings
The first way to help your child make sense of their thoughts is to simply talk through them.
Let them take the lead to say whatever they are thinking, only giving the occasional prompt to ask how it makes them feel and how it relates to other thoughts.
The goal is to gently guide them to understand the thoughts in their mind that are leading to the anxiety so you can then work towards changing those intrinsic beliefs.
Journaling is a powerful tool and introducing your child to their first journal can set them on a path to emotional freedom.
Explain to them that the journal is a safe place for them to write or draw whatever is on their mind. This will help you see what’s going on so you can see where they may need gentle guidance.
We don’t always have the words to express how we feel, and neither do your kids. So introducing an emotions scale can help your child express their level of anxiety in different settings and situations.
In turn, this will help you to recognise patterns and trends so you can zero in on the situations causing distress.
It may help to talk to your child’s school as well to see if they are able to facilitate a space for your child to quietly go somewhere and write down their scale score in different situations, too.
2. Encourage positive self-talk
The second step to helping your child overcome social anxiety is to encourage positive self-talk.
This is the process of teaching your child how to talk to themselves in a more positive and helpful way. It’s basically training their brain to think more constructively about themselves and their abilities.
There are a number of ways you can help your child with this, such as:
Point out when they are being hard on themselves
This will help them to start recognising when they are thinking negatively about themselves. Once they become aware of it, they can start working on changing those thoughts.
Help them create affirmations
Sit down with your child and brainstorm a list of positive affirmations they can say to themselves when they are feeling anxious. These could be things like, “I am capable”, “I am brave”, or “I am loved”.
Encourage them to take risks
A big part of social anxiety is the fear of judgement and rejection. So one way to help your child is to encourage them to take small risks in their day-to-day life so they can start building up their confidence. This could be things like asking a classmate for help with schoolwork or joining a sports team.
3. Teach your child coping mechanisms to relax
Your child is likely to feel a lot of stress and tension due to their social anxiety. As such, it’s important to equip them with some relaxation techniques so they have something to fall back on when things get tough.
Here are some ideas:
Deep breathing exercises
One of the quickest ways to alleviate stress is through deep breathing. When we’re anxious, we take shallower breaths from our chest which can worsen the feeling of panic. Instead, encourage your child to take long, deep belly breaths to help them feel calmer.
You can do this together as a family or even make it into a game! Try seeing who can blow the biggest bubbles with bubble gum or make the biggest towers out of Lego.
Progressive muscle relaxation
This is a great way to help your child release the tension that has built up in their body from all the stress.
Get them to start by tensing and relaxing different muscle groups, working from their toes all the way up to their head. As they do this, encourage them to breathe deeply and focus on how their muscles feel as they let go of the tension.
Guided imagery or meditation
Both guided imagery and meditation are fantastic for helping children (and adults!) relax and de-stress.
With guided imagery, you take your child on a mental journey to a peaceful place where they can feel calm and relaxed. This could be a beach, the park or even their favourite TV show!
Meditation, on the other hand, is more about focusing on the present moment and letting go of thoughts that don’t serve them. There are some great apps out there like Stop, Breathe & Think which have specific meditation exercises for kids.
4. Help them prepare for social situations
One of the best ways to help your child overcome their social anxiety is to help them prepare for upcoming social situations.
This could be anything from a birthday party to a school play. The key is to start small and gradually increase the level of difficulty as they become more confident.
Here are some tips:
Role-play different scenarios
You can do this with your child at home or even in the car on the way to an event. Get them to think about what they might say or do in different situations and then act it out with you. This will help them to feel more prepared and less anxious about what might happen.
Another great way to prepare your child for upcoming social situations is to get them to visualise themselves being successful.
This could be anything from picturing themselves making new friends at a party to giving a great performance in their school play. The more they practise this, the more likely it is that they will feel confident and anxiety-free when the time comes.
Practise makes perfect
As the saying goes, practise makes perfect! So if your child is anxious about an upcoming social situation, try to expose them to similar situations in a safe and controlled environment.
This could be anything from going to a café with you to meeting up with a friend in the park. The key is to start small and work your way up so they can build their confidence slowly but surely.
5. Teach them how to make friends
It can be useful for your child to start overcoming their social anxiety by teaching them how to make friends.
This may seem like a daunting task, but it’s actually quite simple when you break it down into smaller steps.
Here are some tips:
Encourage them to be curious
One of the best ways to make friends is to be interested in other people. So encourage your child to ask questions and find out about other people’s interests, hobbies and families.
Not only will this help them to make new friends, but it will also boost their confidence as they feel more comfortable talking to others.
Teach them the art of conversation
Conversations can be tricky, especially if you don’t know what to say. So teach your child some basic conversation starters that they can use in different social situations.
You could also encourage them to practice conversations with you or other family members so they feel more confident when they’re talking to new people.
Encourage them to be themselves
One of the best ways to make friends is to be yourself. So encourage your child to be honest and authentic in their interactions with others.
This means being okay with the fact that not everyone will like them and that’s perfectly normal. The key is to find someone who shares similar interests and values and who will appreciate them for who they are.
Don't be afraid to seek professional help
If you’ve tried all of the above and your child is still struggling with social anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help.
There are a number of professionals who can help, including psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors. They will be able to assess your child’s situation and provide them with the tools they need to overcome their social anxiety.
If you’re not sure where to start, you could ask your GP for a referral or look for mental health services available in your local area.
Social anxiety can be a big challenge for kids, but there are a number of things you can do to help them overcome it. The key is to start small and gradually increase the level of exposure to social situations.
You should also teach them how to make friends and encourage them to be themselves. And if you’ve tried all of the above and your child is still struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.