Social anxiety is a debilitating disorder that can create some difficult obstacles for anyone, let alone children.
As a parent or caregiver, it’s agonising to see your child suffering from such a difficult mental obstacle, and you want to do whatever you can to take away their pain.
Luckily, with childrens’ ability to learn and pick up new skills quickly, by recognising and teaching them coping mechanisms at an early age, they have a greater chance of overcoming it as they approach adulthood.
So we’re going to walk you through social anxiety in childhood and how you can give your child the tools they need to overcome it.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is a subsection of Generalised Anxiety (GA) in which a person suffers from panic and worry in the face of social situations. It stems from a fear of judgement, rejection, and humiliation from your peers.
Humans, as a race, are predisposed to the need for social acceptance. In days gone by, our ancestors relied on each other to create a community for safety and survival.
This community instinct is still very much engrained in us today.
Needless to say, when social anxiety hits, it can cause a lot of distress. Which is why it’s important to recognise it as soon as possible and seek help if needed.
Why are kids suffering from social anxiety?
According to the NHS, social anxiety tends to begin during our teenage years. However, according to Young Minds, 1 in 6 children between six and 16 suffer from a mental disorder. And as the charity correctly points out, that is equivalent to five children per classroom.
So, why are so many children suffering from social anxiety?
Well, there are quite a few culprits.
The first is societal norms and expectations that vastly contrast the reality your child perceives of themselves. Basically, if your child believes they don’t fit in to what is expected of them, it can spark fears of rejection which can lead to social anxiety. This is perpetuated by media commentary on famous people (often role models’) private lives.
Another possible cause is from a lack of positive reinforcement from adults at home and in their closest circles. Children depend on us to let them know that they are doing ok. And if they are constantly told they’re not good enough, they will eventually believe it. And in turn, they believe everyone will see them as unloveable.
But, perhaps the biggest current culprit of the excessive rise in social anxiety, is due to the Coronavirus pandemic. You see, for all the difficulties we may have had with our jobs, money, etc, the lives of millions of children were turned upside down.
Friends were ripped apart and unable to see each other for months on end. School, a place they had associated with being safe, was suddenly turned into a high-risk building. And they had to very quickly adapt from being in the classroom every day to remote learning.
In fact, 83% of children reported that their mental health had been adversely affected by the virus, which is shown by the increase in NHS referrals for children’s mental health services.
And unfortunately, the NHS is under great strain and unable to facilitate help for all these children. 39% of children with mental health problems that have applied for NHS help have not been accepted.
So, it’s up to us to do what we can at home to help our kids with their social anxiety.
How can you tell if your child is suffering from social anxiety?
Children, young children in particular, have a difficult time voicing exactly what’s wrong with them. Either they lack the vocabulary or they don’t fully understand it themselves.
There are some pretty common tell-tale signs that your child might be suffering from social anxiety though:
- Your child feels sick before school on most days
- Your child avoids extra-curricular activities because they are worried what their friends will think
- Your child tells you that people at school keep laughing at them
- Your child’s schoolteachers say they never answer questions in class
- Your child tells you they aren’t good enough at something so they shouldn’t even try
If your child exhibits any of these signs, it doesn’t automatically mean they have social anxiety. But it’s worth investigating to see what’s causing these unusual behaviours.
The five steps below will help you get to the bottom of what’s going on and help your child overcome their social anxiety.
Five steps to overcoming social anxiety for children
1. Have an open and honest conversation about social anxiety
Social anxiety can be scary for anyone, but especially for children.
They are going through a confusing set of emotions that they don’t understand and are unequipped to deal with.
The first step to helping them is to explain what social anxiety is in a way they understand.
Explain that sometimes people can experience nerves and worry in social situations. Get your child to talk about how they feel in specific social situations such as at school and with friends, and how it makes them feel.
It may help to use videos or children’s books to help teach your child about social anxiety and make them feel less alone. Once they have a better understanding of what is going on, they’ll be in a better space to implement coping strategies to help overcome their social anxiety.
2. Encourage your child to journal their feelings
Children struggle to vocalise their feelings and emotions. Not only do they lack the sophisticated vocabulary to articulate exactly how they feel and why, but they are also just as confused and unsure about their feelings as you are.
If you’ve seen the Pixar film, “Inside Out,” you’ll get a pretty good view of how an immature (not fully developed) brain emotes. They tend to have apparently random base emotions that are set off by random stimuli and they don’t really know why.
But, just because they struggle to understand and express their feelings out loud, it doesn’t mean they can’t access them at all.
Journals are the perfect tool to help children get their emotions out.
Encourage your child to draw and write words that they are feeling in the moment. Try to let them free flow without interference. Many children find their voice through doodling in a journal and setting parameters may hinder the process.
Not only is journaling a great tool to help you and your child understand their social anxiety, but it’s also a great coping mechanism to help them process their thoughts.
3. Help your child prepare for social situations
Following conversations and journaling with your child, you probably have a pretty good idea of the social situations that trigger their social anxiety.
A great deal of anxiety comes from not knowing to expect – fear of the unknown. As such, you can help your child by prepping them before social situations.
Explain who is going to be there, where they are going, why it is happening, what will be happening, and for how long.
This information will give your child the confidence that they are in control and they can plan how they will cope accordingly.
4. Teach your child to focus on making progress rather than striving for perfection
The other big contributing fear of social anxiety is a fear of rejection. Children assume that if they aren’t perfect (they don’t have the best grades, the best clothes, the best toys, are the most liked, etc) that the people around them will reject them.
By extension, this all or nothing fear may extend to how they deal with their social anxiety. That is, either they are scared out of their mind or not scared at all.
Empower your child to take their recovery one step at a time.
Praise them for the small improvements they make and support them when they feel like they can’t do it.
Knowing that you believe in them, and that they are allowed to make and celebrate small steps forwards will empower them to develop the self-confidence and belief needed to overcome their social anxiety.
5. Teach them coping mechanisms
Unfortunately, you can’t always be there to help your child through social situations. But it means you can teach your child coping mechanisms that will serve them for life and help them improve their confidence.
Social anxiety coping mechanisms include:
- Learning when to step away and find a quiet place to recover
- Challenging negative thoughts about the situation
- Breathing techniques
- Self-soothing techniques
Social anxiety is incredibly difficult for anyone to deal with, let alone a child.
By following these five steps, you’ll give your child the foundation they need to overcome their anxiety.
And if you think their social anxiety is severe, or they aren’t responding well to these steps, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for help.
The NHS has a great mental health support network that you can lean on, as well as your child’s SEMH (Social, Emotional, and Mental Health) team.
You don’t have to do it alone.