How to Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler With Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety in Kids: What You Need to Know

How to Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler With Social Anxiety

Twelve-year-old Sarah says she wants to be friends with two kids in her class, but she “freezes” every time they ask her to join them.

Eight-year-old Roberto hasn’t gone near the basketball court since last month, when one of the boys yelled at him, “I can’t believe you missed that shot! It was so easy!”

Fifteen-year-old Greer loves to build things and can spend hours in her room making mechanical toys. She’s been invited to join the Robotics Club but absolutely refuses to go.

Do any of these kids sound your child? If so, it’s not uncommon. Many children and adults worry excessively about social interactions. This is especially true during adolescence.

Social anxiety isn’t limited to avoiding fun-sounding activities. It can also play a big role in kids refusing to go to school. Read more about social anxiety, how learning and thinking differences can contribute to it, and what you can do to help.

Social anxiety disorder is a specific type of anxiety that gets triggered when kids or adults are asked to think about or take part in social situations. It’s much more than shyness. It’s an intense fear that can make it hard to build friendships and enjoy other people’s company.

Kids with this type of anxiety worry that they’ll be seen badly in social situations. They may only feel comfortable with people they know very well.

Social anxiety is a lot separation anxiety, but for older kids and adults. Very young kids fear being away from their caregivers because they need them to survive. Social anxiety is similar. Something unsafe might happen if I leave home. If I talk to that kid, it will turn out bad.

Social anxiety can snowball, too. Say your child is anxious about going to a classmate’s birthday party. You might think it’s OK to let your child skip it this time. But if you do, your child will miss out on a chance to develop social skills needed for the next time there’s a party.

Kids who worry about making social mistakes may avoid going places where they could learn social rules or how to act around others. This is how social anxiety can become a vicious cycle.

The Connection With Learning and Thinking Differences

Kids with learning and thinking differences can struggle with unstructured social interaction. They may get confused by the words people are using. They may misread body language or other subtle social cues.

As a result, they may get anxious and withdraw from the situation. It’s social anxiety, but it’s caused or made worse because of the underlying learning or thinking differences. Here are a few examples:

  • : A child may blurt out something inappropriate. A negative reaction from classmates may lead that child to start avoiding group conversations.
  • : A child may try to avoid reading aloud in class by asking to go to the bathroom or to the school nurse. Separation from class can reinforce the fear of reading aloud. The longer kids with reading issues go without effective reading interventions, the more ly they are to develop social anxiety.

Each time kids are in a situation where they don’t believe they’ll be successful, their brain interprets that as a threat and says, Let’s get here. Their fear centers activate. The part of their brain that controls their executive functions shuts down. Executive functioning skills take a back seat to fear and become less efficient.

How to Help Your Child With Social Anxiety

If you’re cooking and the frying pan catches fire, you take it off the stove. With kids, you want to get them away from the crisis because you want to turn off the fear center. But you need to do this in a limited way so kids don’t learn that not doing something is the best way to feel less anxious.

Here are a few tips on how to help kids deal with social anxiety.

Don’t let your child hit the ejector button. If your child is feeling very anxious in a social situation, help your child step aside and take a few minutes to think about strategies. But don’t agree to go home. Bailing out won’t help your child deal with the situation next time. Even agreeing to sit on the sideline and watch is better than leaving.

Think about less anxious ways to get your child “on stage.” For example, if you know your child gets anxious about speaking in class, ask the teacher to send a question home so your child can rehearse the answer.

For oral reports, ask the teacher if your child can make a video at home or maybe perform a puppet play from behind a curtain. (These kinds of options are becoming more common as more teachers use Universal Design for Learning to try to increase student engagement.)

Develop social “anchors.” When going to a party or a new karate class, try to carpool so your child can walk in with a friend. For school projects, ask the teacher to pair your child with a friendly peer who can field questions about things what to bring or wear. Having a buddy can help make events feel less threatening.

Make a plan for lunchtime and recess. During unstructured times, kids get to make up the rules, and your child may have a lot of trouble reading the environment.

Work with teachers and school staff to help your child deal with social anxiety during these less structured times of the day. Don’t leave this to chance.

Without a plan, your child will ly have more failures than successes, and the problem may snowball.

Make a plan for headaches and stomachaches. Keep in mind that physical complaints may be your child’s way to avoid something scary. Ask specifics so you can help your child come up with strategies. For example, you might ask, “What would it take to help you feel better right now?”

Set some firm boundaries. For example, “You can’t stay home from school unless you have a fever.” Or “Maybe a break from this would help you feel better.

You can have up to 10 minutes for a break, but then you’ll need to get back to doing this.” It can also help to have your child rate the difficulty level of the task.

This can help you know if the resistance is because your child thinks it’s too hard.

Be a detective. It’s not reasonable to expect your child to answer broad questions “What are you so worried about?” Try to get specific.

What’s the worst thing that could happen at the party? Is there anyone in particular you’re worried about seeing? Yes, those girls are laughing, but how can you be sure they’re laughing at you? Why don’t you walk by and just listen to see if you’re right. If you are, maybe that’s something I can help you with.

There is always a story behind social anxiety—there is always a reason for it. Asking questions can help you understand how your child views the demands of the social interaction. The more you understand about your child’s social concerns, the more you can help your child develop a plan for success.

Think about getting a therapist.Cognitive behavioral therapy can often help kids “trade in” negative thoughts for ones that help reduce social anxiety.


Parenting with Social Anxiety. How to help yourself and your kids | by Andrew Knott

How to Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler With Social Anxiety
Photo: Andrew Knott

“I want to wear this to the park,” my four-year-old said excitedly, holding out a red headband with a pirate emblem on it.

I hesitated for a moment as I imagined the looks we might get from other kids and parents before replying, “Sure, sounds good.”

After we completed our preparations for the short outing, I asked if he was ready to put on his headband.

“No,” he said with a touch of sadness. “People at the park might think I’m funny.”

And right there, in our kitchen on a hot summer day, I died just a little inside.

My heart broke not only for my little boy’s self-consciousness, his easy willingness at the tender age of four to deny himself a small pleasure because of fear of what others might think.

My heart also broke because my first thought when he asked if he could wear the headband to the park was, “Oh, people might think we’re funny.”

I know this probably seems silly to most people.

I mean, what adult cares what a four-year-old wears? But that’s the thing about social anxiety disorder — characterized by pathological shyness and avoidance of social situations in large part due to fear of being judged and evaluated — it makes you do things that don’t make much logical sense.

This fear of standing out and perhaps being talked about by faceless others leads people with social anxiety to forego many activities they otherwise might enjoy. I have lived with this fear for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t have a name to put with it until I was clinically diagnosed when I was in my mid-twenties.

As a parent, I’ve learned that it can be particularly challenging to help my children overcome their insecurities and fears.

Academic studies suggest that children of parents with social anxiety or panic disorder are more prone to developing anxiety disorders, including social anxiety.

While the underpinnings of these linkages remain muddy, the consensus among researchers and mental health practitioners is that both genetics and environment play a role.

Thus, it is important for parents suffering with social anxiety to consider how their children might be affected. If you have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, or if you can relate to the type of anxiety I’ve described here, there are several steps you can take to help your children overcome their potential genetic destiny.

1. Be Aware of How Your Anxiety Can Affect Your Child’s Development

In addition to modeling anxious traits and behaviors that children can learn through observation, parents have substantial control over their children’s environments during their early years. Parents decide when and how their kids interact with the wider world.

This can be a problem for children of socially anxious parents, who, because of their own social limitations and fears, often have difficulty introducing their children into organized activities.

For example, I had a hard time pushing myself to register my son for preschool, because I knew he would ly resist and taking the necessary steps was difficult for me. Picking up the phone to make that first call was a real obstacle.

So, if you suffer with social anxiety disorder, it’s easy to lock your children, who might already be genetically predisposed to shyness, into the shyness box by constructing limiting and isolating environments. How can you avoid this trap? Start by taking care of yourself.

If you haven’t sought help from a psychiatrist or therapist, do it now. If making the phone call to set up an appointment is too daunting, ask your spouse or partner to do it for you. Remember that your anxiety isn’t affecting just you. It is ly having a significant impact on your children as well.

Now is the time to act.

2. Know What to Expect When You Seek Help

Your counselor or physician will ly prescribe psychotherapy, potentially in combination with anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants. On the psychotherapy side, one prominent treatment concept is exposure therapy.

In the context of social anxiety disorder, exposure can take the form of seemingly routine tasks, such as initiating small talk with a stranger in a grocery store.

Alternatively, in attempting to immunize against fear of embarrassment or judgment, some therapists encourage more-contrived exposure scenarios, such as intentionally making a mistake while ordering food at a restaurant.

The rationale is that, for the socially anxious person, the potential for embarrassment often underlies fear of interpersonal interactions, so purposely making small mistakes can help you learn that the outcomes are not as catastrophic as imagined.

3. Keep in Mind That Your Therapist Might Not Know Everything

My first therapist encouraged me to practice exposure therapy by introducing myself to at least one stranger per day. He suggested that I walk up to people in a store parking lot and say hello.

I could never make myself follow his advice, quickly became discouraged, and viewed it as yet another failure. However, I later learned that my therapist’s plan of action probably wasn’t the best one.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the preferred treatment method for social anxiety disorder.

And while exposure can be the behavioral part of CBT, cognitive therapies such as role-playing, simulation, and step-by-step deconstruction of anxiety-inducing situations should come first.

Without proper preparation, facing your fears can do more harm than good. Exposure therapy failed to help me because I lacked the necessary tools to navigate such situations.

4. Learn When to Push Your Kids—and When to Pull Back

When children are confronted with new and difficult experiences, it is difficult for any parent to decide when to push and when to pull back.

For example, if your child consistently refuses to participate in group activities, sports or music lessons, it’s difficult to decide if you should force them to try or pull back, wait, and allow them to move at their own pace. Such decisions become more complicated for socially anxious parents because our default is to avoid.

For our own reasons, we’re happy to avoid having to do all the things that are necessary to get our children started in activities and to avoid potential embarrassment that might result when a child refuses to participate.

Here is where your experience with treating your anxiety can start to inform your parenting. Just you might not be prepared for exposure therapy if you haven’t developed the necessary coping strategies, your kids might not be ready to tackle new situations right away.

For example, my son wanted to try tennis lessons. He was particularly attracted to the knocking-over-cones portion of the proceedings. But once he got onto the court with the rest of the kids, he froze up and refused to participate.

Gentle coaxing from me and the instructor failed to get him moving, so we left the court and watched from the sidelines. I decided pushing my son wasn’t the right thing to do in this particular situation.

What happened next confirmed that I had made the right call.

5. Recognize How Your Experiences Can Help Your Children

Whether you realize it or not, if you have lived with social anxiety disorder for most of your life, you’ve ly developed a toolbox of coping strategies. Perhaps some strategies are more positive than others, but your treatment should help highlight and enhance the best ones. Next, you can pass along to your children some strategies you’ve learned and developed.

The moment we left that first tennis lesson, my son wanted to do the entire warmup routine he had observed the other kids doing. Just the two of us, by ourselves, in the safety of the parking lot. This unexpected twist was an a-ha moment for me.

I remembered from my childhood (and my adulthood) that a key component of my fear of new situations and activities is the fear of not knowing what to do and, in turn, fear of doing the wrong thing.

I had probably never thought of it in those terms before, but this experience with my son made it very clear.

What I have always done to combat this fear of the unknown is learn as much as I can about a new situation before I make that first leap. Now I’m using this strategy to help my son tackle his fears.

6. Remember the Importance of Getting Familiar with New Situations

I try to help my son become familiar with new activities before we jump into them, though I quickly realized that creating general familiarity wasn’t sufficient. For example, just verbally explaining to him some things he might do at a tennis lesson wasn’t enough. Instead, we practiced the warmup moves we observed so he would be less anxious about not knowing what to do.

This type of preparation, practice, and step-by-step deconstruction of intimidating tasks might not be a cure-all — every situation is different — but it’s a good place to start.

Learning to combat this fear of the new and unfamiliar, which is a core phobia underlying many stressors that socially anxious people experience, will go a long way toward helping you and your child begin to tackle anxieties.

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Social Anxiety in Toddlers

How to Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler With Social Anxiety

Source: Calvin, via Flickr, Creative Commons

My three-year-old has been diagnosed with social anxiety by a developmental specialist. His preschool teacher tells me he is «just shy.» Should we worry that the teacher is not taking the diagnosis seriously? What can we do to help our child?

Social Anxiety and Shyness: What’s the Difference?

There’s a wide range of what’s “normal,” when it comes to social confidence. That’s true for adults, and it’s even truer for small children. Some toddlers are easily confident with strangers, and enjoy interactions with people they don’t know very well.

Other toddlers are more skeptical, and don’t welcome people’s attention until they’ve gotten to know them. We can think of those children as «shy.» Still others are immobilized with fear and anxiety when they are in social situations.

That kind of intense reaction is what is sometimes labelled «social anxiety.»

If a teacher reads a child as “shy” rather than suffering from social anxiety, the child is probably handling the social experience of the classroom pretty well, which calls into question the social anxiety diagnosis.

We want our kids to pay attention to the dangers in their environment. But when does a healthy concern become pathological? When should we consider the possibility of social anxiety? Here are some behaviours Anne Marie Albano suggests you look for:

  1. Is your child uncomfortable speaking to adults or other children, even when they’re familiar with them?
  2. Does your child avoid eye contact, mumble, or speak very quietly when addressed by other people?
  3. Does your child blush or tremble around other people?
  4. Does your child cry or throw a tantrum when confronted with new people?
  5. Does your child express intense worry about doing or saying the wrong thing?
  6. Does your child complain of physical problems stomach aches, and want to stay home from school, field trips, or parties?
  7. Does your child withdraw from activities, and want to spend all their time at home?

Identifying Problems Early Without Pathologizing Normal Development

It’s good to identify potential problems early, and address them before they get bigger. When differences are seen as learning opportunities, they often become strengths for kids. This is as true for social concerns as it is for slower development of attention, physical co-ordination, or reading.

But avoid the label unless necessary. A good rule of thumb with children’s differences from others is to avoid using an official-sounding label unless it’s absolutely necessary for the child to get the necessary treatment. That’s as true for social anxiety as it is for learning disabilities as it is for giftedness.

Labels can bring problems, including the sense there is something (permanently) wrong with the child. That can erode confidence, as well as the natural learning and growing processes that would otherwise lead to the child overcoming the problem. Most times, solutions can be found without the use of a scary label.

Coping Mechanisms: Support Your Child’s Confidence in Social Situations

  1. Start with yourself. If you’re anxious in social encounters, you’re transmitting that anxiety to your child. Just parents can teach kids to welcome or fear dogs or caterpillars, they can teach them to welcome or fear other people.
  2. Be positive. Social anxiety is a worry about the judgement of others.

    So, don’t criticize your child’s behaviour or interactions with others. Instead, look for sources of celebration and congratulation.

  3. Look at the teacher as a problem-solving ally.

    Teachers are not always right, and a given teacher is not always good for a given child, but things usually go better for a child when their parents work constructively and respectfully with the teacher.

  4. Deep breathing. One of the oldest tricks for reducing anxiety: take a deep breath. And then take another. Magic.

    I’ve seen children as young as 18 months learn to do this.

  5. Quiet alone-time. Daycare and preschool are stressful places for young children. Sometimes what looks social anxiety is a normal and healthy need to be on one’s own for a few minutes. Every child should have a safe space they can choose to retreat to for quiet alone-time.

  6. Mindfulness. When toddlers learn to pay attention to their own feelings, they can activate coping strategies as needed, breathing deeply, or taking a few minutes on their own.
  7. Role play. Invent social situations with your child, and play-act them together.

    Be as creative as you want, bringing costumes, props, siblings, and stuffed animals into the action if you .

  8. Read books about social problems and confidence. Then talk about what’s going well (or badly) for the characters.
  9. Outdoor play.

    Spending time outdoors running, swinging, digging, and playing, has many benefits, one of which is reducing anxiety. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

  10. Gratitude. Teach your child the habit of looking for sources of gratitude. That helps change the emotional channel from fear to gratitude.

  11. Fun social activities. Identify activities your child enjoys, whether musical, athletic, or something else. Then look for circumstances where they can participate in those activities with others of their age.
  12. Respect your child’s temperament.

    Your child may need more alone-time than others, and may take longer than others to warm up to strangers. That’s okay, and not something to fix.

  13. Trust your child’s competence. Don’t try to protect them from social interactions by speaking up for them, or allowing them to avoid all social activities. Overprotection is crippling.

  14. Baby steps. Learning happens one small step at a time. Take your child’s social learning as slowly as necessary, remembering there will be bad days as well as good along the way. Think of every “failure” or problem as an opportunity to regroup, rethink, and try again.
  15. Balance.

    Allow your child the alone-time and downtime they need, as well as opportunities for positive social engagement.

  16. Trust your gut. If you’ve helped your child with coping mechanisms, and worked with the teacher, and you still feel your child’s needs are not being well met, it’s time to seek further professional help, advocate for change at your child’s school, or change schools.
  • What Is Anxiety?
  • Find a therapist to overcome anxiety

Further Reading

Keep It Simple! 3 Parenting Tips for a Healthy Life Balance

Get the help you need from a therapist near you–a FREE service from Psychology Today.


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