It’s not uncommon for kids to experience separation anxiety or fear of strangers. These fears typically occur in stages and decrease gradually as kids get older, although some children might continue to struggle with certain situations. It’s typical to be nervous from time to time, but if your child continues to find social situations overwhelmingly difficult, they may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety.
Signs of social anxiety in children include (but are not limited to):
- Avoids eye contact
- Is extremely shy when meeting new people
- Doesn’t raise their hand or want to be called on in class
- Withdraws from extracurricular activities
- Wants to skip parties or field trips
- Becomes upset when it’s time to go to school
- Demonstrates significant fearful behavior at the thought of being in the spotlight, e.g. school play, class speech
Instead of avoiding situations with large groups of people, which can reinforce social fears, help your child through them. Try these ideas to increase their comfort around new people or in a large group:
- Talk through situations to try to challenge worrisome thoughts. For instance, if a child refuses to go to school because of an unpleasant social interaction, acknowledge his fears, then help him find a solution to confront them to end the cycle of worry, e.g. “I see you’re afraid to go to school today, is it because of what the teacher said yesterday? How do you know she is really mad at you? Is there a way we can find out? Great idea, let’s ask her!”
- Tell them they’re going to an event in advance and what they can expect at an event with lots of new people. Determine how far in advance you want to tell them about an upcoming social outing. You want to find the balance between avoiding surprising them and not telling them too far in advance, which can cause more worry and stress.
- Try different tactics to help them self-calm during stressful situations. A common tip is to take slow, deep breaths.
- Plan quiet time before and after to help your child de-stress.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Being over-tired increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
- Be patient and remember that overcoming anxiety does not happen overnight. Praise small accomplishments your child achieves in overcoming their social anxiety.
Some anxiety in stressful situations is typical but if social anxiety is interfering with daily life, upsetting your child weeks ahead of an event, causing physical symptoms, or causing severe behavioral issues, contact your healthcare provider.
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