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Social anxiety is one of the most common problems that prevents children from adopting a growth mindset. It is one of the main reasons kids are afraid to fail or make mistakes. They may be afraid to let others down, or that they’ll be embarrassed in front of others.
One of the bigger consequences of social anxiety, though, is that it prevents children from trying new things and taking risks, both necessary to reach their full potential.
Social anxiety sometimes sounds like this:
“I’m not good at soccer, so I don’t want to go.”
“Jenny won’t play with me because she says I’m not playing right.”
“I’ll never be good at the recorder, so I don’t need to bother trying.”
Luckily, you can help your children learn how to overcome social anxiety using these seven strategies.
1. Connect With Your Child
You can use the PACE model to engage with your children and help them feel safe. The PACE method stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy. These four reactions or methods of interaction help to release some of the anxiety associated with a situation by letting the child know that you are calm, relaxed, and able to understand and help them.
An interaction between a parent and a child with social anxiety could sound like this:
"It seems like you're worried about your game tomorrow. You're not scared you'll have too much fun, are you?"
Using playfulness shows your child that you, as the person who keeps them safe, are feeling relaxed and open, allowing them to begin to feel more relaxed.
"No, I just don't want to play soccer anymore. I'd rather play with you."
"I hear ya. I love playing with you too."
Showing acceptance of your child’s feelings is especially important when your child has anxiety, because so often anxiety can be brushed off as irrational. If your child learns that they can come to you with their anxiety and feel heard, they feel safer now and with future anxieties.
"Maybe you're worried about missing a goal tomorrow. I know when I focus on scoring in sports, I feel really anxious and pressured to do well. I wonder if you're feeling nervous because you’re not sure if you’ll make goals?"
Introducing a curiosity about the child’s feelings is a start to help tease out what the child is feeling. Sometimes, you’re spot on, and the child feels understood immediately. If you’re incorrect, though, your child may tell you what they’re actually concerned about. Or you can keep using curiosity until you uncover the source of your child’s anxiety.
"Well, I did miss a goal at the last game, and Jordan was mean to me because I let down the WHOLE team."
"That it so tough! Feeling like you let down the whole team is such a big, heavy feeling."
Showing empathy about the child’s feelings helps them to feel connected to you, knowing that you understand HOW they are feeling, not just what they are saying.
This model helps the child to feel heard and connected, two factors which can help to support the child in scary situations. Once they are interacting with you in a space that feels both safe and empathetic, you can start to work on techniques to alleviate the social anxiety that your child is feeling.
2. Teach Your Child About Social Anxiety
Have open conversations with them about the reason anxiety exists - to keep us safe. As humans were evolving, primal brain parts helped to keep our species alive by sending distress signals when something was wrong. These stress signals enabled us to act quickly to make ourselves safe again, and once we were safe, our stress levels returned to normal.
Now that we don’t live in an environment with many immediate stressors like lions waiting to eat us, our brains sometimes get stuck in stress, which leads to anxiety. This is mostly because most of our problems aren’t immediate, like lions; they’re longer-term: like a soccer game tomorrow.
So while we used to be able to run from the lion, be safe, and feel calm, now we have time to worry about a soccer game...and then continue worrying. And because our imaginations are so spectacular, too much time to worry can end in a lot of anxiety.
While no one is born with social anxiety, many of us learn how to be socially anxious at the same time that we are learning how to act in society. The good news about that fact is that we can learn to reprogram our brains away from social anxiety, too, and some of the techniques in this article are the first steps.
One of the key ways to help your kids overcome social anxiety is to model the process yourself. You can do this by following these 3 simple steps:
- admit when you're nervous about something
- do that thing (maybe even in front of your child)
- report back to them how it went, especially if it went well.
This both teaches your child that you understand social anxiety yourself, and that you have ways to help yourself through it, which means you can help them as well.
3. Prepare Your Child
If you know a situation is coming up that could cause your child anxiety, prepare them as much as possible. Detail what will happen, when, how people might respond, and what you'll be doing in the situation.
Give them as much information as possible so that the situation is familiar when it arrives. Preparation doesn’t just have to be talking, though. It can be reading, role-playing, and anything else that makes them more comfortable.
If your child is nervous about performing in a school play, you can read books about overcoming that nervousness like this one.
You can help your child to participate in imaginative play, where you and they are both performing the play in front of an audience of stuffed animals.
You can look at pictures of kids performing in plays.
You can even tour the theater - a couple of times, if need be - before the date of the play so that the environment feels familiar once the time comes.
4. Focus On Progress, Not Perfection
Social anxiety is heavily linked to perfectionism. Fear of failure, fear of looking bad in front of friends, or fear of not meeting a goal all contribute heavily to a child’s anxious feelings surrounding a situation.
Help your child to focus on the process instead of the goal. Engage them with talking about how fun it is to play sports, and how much you love to hear them practicing the flute.
This is an excellent time to reinforce learning about the growth mindset, and how mistakes are a part of the process. Show them your own mistakes, and how much more you’ve learned from your mistakes than from achieving the goal.
Remind them of the power of “yet.” You’re not an expert YET, and your child isn’t an expert fiddler YET. You can use our "Power of YET" printable worksheet for children available here.
"Practice IS the goal" is a mantra you can use in your home. Finding the comfort in the practice, and taking joy in the journey are cliches that have actual value - reminding us to ENJOY the process instead of focusing on the goal.
By doing this, you stretch out your happiness, because it isn’t just limited to the few minutes of excitement when you reach a goal. Instead, you’re enthusiastic the entire process because you see your progress and delight in the doing.
5. Learn When To Step In And When To Step Back
This one is tricky, and it definitely depends on the child. But when a parent hovers over an anxious child, it can make them more anxious - because they feel the parent's worry. Try to step back, but always be close by if they need you.
On the other hand, you can intervene when it seems like a panic attack or episode is coming up, removing your child from the situation temporarily to remind them of coping skills or just to give them a break before encouraging them to go back.
This step is intuitive. No one knows your child like you do. Just be careful to give them space to explore and grow, even when it feels scary.
6. Teach Coping Techniques
A variety of coping techniques are available, from those that can be done in a situation to those that are prepared for earlier - like sitting calmly to help quiet the mind.
Teach your child some techniques that you can do together, and some that they can do when they don’t have you. That way, they’re prepared no matter what.
Coping Technique #1: Calm Breathing
Teaching your child to utilize calm breathing actually helps to slow their sympathetic nervous system, which signals to their bodies that they don’t need to interact in the flight or fight response.
You can have your child breathe in, slowly and deeply filling their bellies with air, and then breathe out, slowly and deeply. Some ways to teach kids of all ages to do this are:
- Count to five on your fingers when you breathe in, and again when you breathe out.
- Smell the flowers and blow out the candles.
- Breathe in until you can’t breathe in any more air at all - and then take one tiny more “sip” or air, and then let it go until there’s no more air inside your body at all.
Coping Technique #2: The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique
This technique helps children to be in touch with their surroundings, which is especially important if a full-blown anxiety attack is looming.
To do this, help your child to notice:
- 5 things they see. Say them out loud. “I see a cat.” “I see a lamp.”
- 4 things they feel. Say them out loud. “I feel my socks.” “I feel the wind.”
- 3 things they hear. Say them out loud. “I hear a car.” “I hear my sister.”
- 2 things they smell. Say them out loud. “I smell mom’s perfume.” “I smell this flower.”
- 1 thing they can taste. Say it out loud. “I taste my lunch.”
This exercise can help children to feel more grounded in their space, and can also knock their anxious thoughts off track when they become too much.
Coping Technique #3: Sensory Items
Giving children sensory items (like these) can help to transfer their anxious thoughts into the items they’re playing with. Therapy putty is a type of sensory putty that’s more difficult to play with that regular putty or playdough, so it really works kids’ minds and fingers. Hide small items in the putty and ask kids to find them.
You can also give kids weighted blankets to increase the overall sensations on the body. Weighted blankets are typically 10% of a child’s body weight, and you can make one yourself or buy them online. When kids are stressed, they can cuddle up in one for a long-lasting “hug.”
7. Allow Your Child To Worry
Allow your child a "worry time" wherein you help them explore possible negative outcomes. Set a timer for ten minutes, and let the worrying commence. At the end of "worrying time," work to find a solution or coping technique to help your child through the scary experience they're anticipating.
While worry time is happening, a child can imagine every awful thing that could happen and fully experience them. Stay with your child during this time to reinforce feelings of safety, and talk through the possible outcomes and any feelings that come up. Acknowledge that even the most outrageous of possible outcomes feel possible and scary.
As you’re helping your child through worry time, you can also try the “worst-case scenario” exercise that we described in our article about overcoming the fear of failure.
In this exercise, your child would imagine the worst possible outcome to a situation, and brainstorm ways to lessen the possibility of those happening. At the end of this exercise, you and your child would also talk about how to recover from those “worst-case” circumstances.
These seven ways can help your child to overcome challenging situations and social anxiety in many environments. Let’s recap what they were:
- Connect with your child
- Teach your child about social anxiety
- Prepare your child
- Focus on progress, not perfection
- Learn when to step in and when to step back
- Teach coping techniques
- Allow worry time
If you can help your child to overcome social anxiety now, you’ll be setting them up for success for life!