Nothing hurts more than to see my kid struggling to fit in socially. It’s heartbreaking. As much as I’d like to spare my kids ALL and ANY pain of an uncomfortable situation, I know that’s not always what’s best for them.
How will they ever conquer social anxiety and grow into confident adults if I’m always running interference?
So, as much as I hate to, I have to let them struggle a bit.
Some kids breeze right through new situations while others struggle with social anxiety. Social anxiety is a fear some people have of social situations that require them to interact with other people. If you’ve never struggled with it, you might have a hard time relating. But, that doesn’t exempt you from helping your child.
I faced this dilemma when my daughter went on her first retreat with our church’s youth group. In the weeks leading up to the trip, she was ecstatic, but when I dropped off her and her brother at church to get on the bus, I could see a look of panic set in her eyes. I could see she was uncomfortable and unsure of going. I wasn’t surprised because she is a child who struggles socially.
Frankly, I was surprised that she had signed up to go in the first place. She’s openly funny, loveable, witty, chatty, and charming …when she’s among family.
She loaded her stuff into the belly of the bus then came to me and quietly said, “I don’t really have any friends at church, Mom.”
My heart sank. I was tempted to tell her she didn’t have to go and to put her back in the car.
Two things stopped me:
First, I knew that was not the best thing for her (no matter how badly I wanted to spare her). Secondly, I would’ve had lots of ‘splaining to do to my husband if I walked through the door with her when I returned home.
I understood her fear well because I struggled with it as a kid. You know that sickening feeling you get in your stomach when you get really bad news? It feels like that. Not everyone suffers from social anxiety, but everyone’s received bad news so it’s easy to relate to that feeling.
In those days there was no such thing as “social anxiety.” It existed. We just didn’t call it that. We used different words to describe kids who suffered from it: shy, weird, stuck up. And those kids just went about life as best they could.
Even with a name, social anxiety isn’t always easily identifiable. Kids with social anxiety are still viewed as quiet, shy, disinterested or aloof.
Here are a few suggestions for helping a child conquer anxiety and get over the social hump:
1. Empathize With Her
Acknowledge your child’s fears. Everyone wants to feel like someone understands. It’s comforting to know that someone recognizes and cares about what you’re going through. Help her articulate what she is feeling, then comfort and encourage her. Saying things like, “I can understand why you would feel that way” or “No one likes to be uncomfortable” will help her feel like you “get it.”
2. Put Fear into Perspective
This is easier said than done. Sometimes kids realize their fears are irrational but feel powerless to do anything about it. Talk with her before she faces new situations. Remind her that it’s normal to be a little uncomfortable in new situations, and that she is probably not the only one feeling this way. Remind her of her past successes in new situations.
Walk her through worst case/best case scenarios. Try to make the worst case something so ridiculous that it would NEVER happen. Using humor sometimes can reduce anxiety and put the situation into perspective. And, if a worst case scenario happens (she walks into a room, slips on a banana peel, spills her drink, falls down and splits her pants), would her right arm fall off? Help her realize that even if something undesirable happens, you still love her and she will be okay in the end.
3. Encourage Participation
As I said, I was surprised when my daughter wanted to attend the retreat. And, because she wanted to go, I wouldn’t have dreamed of discouraging her. It’s easy for kids who feel socially awkward to want to stay home and not get involved in activities. As moms, we want to keep them safe within the walls of their comfort zone. Heck, we’d like to stay in that zone ourselves. But, as much as we want to protect them, we have to encourage (and allow) them to participate. If you have a faith, this is a great opportunity to encourage her to trust and to step out in faith.
4. Encourage Her to Do the Hard Things
Again, we don’t want to see our kids struggle. But, if we don’t encourage them to do the hard, uncomfortable stuff when they’re still under our constant supervision and care, they won’t do the hard stuff when they’re out on their own. It doesn’t get easier as time goes on; it gets harder.
5. Find a Friend
Sometimes kids with anxiety do better in a one-on-one or small group situation. Teach her how to create her own one-on-one situation. When she walks into a new situation, tell her to scan the room and look for someone she deems approachable or someone who is standing or sitting alone. Then approach that person and engage in conversation. Many resources are available on teaching conversational skills.
6. Get Involved in Confidence-Building Activities
Activities are a great way to overcome social anxiety, especially theater. Theater may seem like a big leap, but it’s a huge confidence builder. And, what kid doesn’t like to pretend? On stage, you’re scripted. You don’t have to think of something to say. When they become more comfortable on stage, you can then help them translate that activity into real life. When meeting someone new or going into an unfamiliar situation, tell them to pretend they are acting. Don’t encourage phoniness. Look at it as a way to relax and have fun. Too many activities might not be helpful to a child with social anxiety. You don’t want them to be stress all the time.
7. Teach Social Skills
Knowing what to do in social situations builds confidence. Teach your child social skills, including manners and conversational skills.
8. Then, Practice
Put your child in safe situations so she can practice skills without fear or intimidation. Role playing is a great way to help kids deal with the anticipation of a situation and reduce anxiety. Act out possible scenarios–good and bad–so your child will be equipped with alternatives when she’s in social situations. Everyone is not going to “play nice,” so help her prepare for that. Teach your child how to handle awkward situations with grace, which will build her confidence.
9. Praise With Constructive Language When She Does Step Out
So, your child has taken the big step and attended a social function, invited friends over, or gotten up the courage to join a groups of kids for lunch. It’s easy to tell her “great job” for stepping out, but saying “great job” also implies that she did a “not so great job” if the situation doesn’t turn out favorably That could reinforce negative self-talk. Instead use language that helps her get in touch with how she felt when she took the big step, whether it turned out favorably or not. “Did you feel confident when you joined that group of kids at lunch today?” This language gives her an awareness of what she did and how it made her feel. If she felt good, she’s likely to want to repeat that behavior. If things don’t turn out so well, tell her you’re thankful she was confident enough to approach the situation and handle it with grace.
Having struggled as a child, I knew how my daughter felt, which intensified the knot in my stomach. I tried to calm her fears by reminding her that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable in new situations. Next, I reminded her of the role playing we’d done and finally that she was going on a CHURCH trip and to put her trust in God and watch what He could do.
But, honestly, as a mom, I crumbled inside as she boarded the bus. I didn’t feel like putting my trust in God at that moment. I hated to see my child struggling. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, I could see her silhouette through the bus window. Everyone else in the girls’ section of the bus was paired up.
She sat all alone.
She spotted me, pressed her face to the window, and with a sad smile, she raised her hand and waved good-bye.
I wanted to cry. I probably would have chased the bus down the street and snatched her off, had other parents not surrounded me. Instead, I politely and calmly said my good-byes to the other moms, went to my car, and cried.
I drove around for about half an hour, absolutely miserable. I pulled into McDonald’s and got a couple of large sweet teas to drown my sorrows. After downing the second one, I knew I had to pull myself together for her sake. A sweet tea high was no way to deal with the problem. I needed to have my wits about me.
I called my son (who was also on the bus) and told him to sit with his sister until I could develope a plan.
About an hour later, my daughter began texting me expressing doubts about her social worthiness.
Daughter: Do u think I am socially awkward?
Me: Absolutely not. Why? (No more than any other girl her age.)
Daughter: I was just thinking. . .
Me: Try to relax; be yourself. Remember, the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll get. Why don’t you talk to L, the youth group leader? Tell her how you feel. She’s there to help with things like this.
Daughter: Who’s L?
To myself: ??!!! Really??!! Seriously??!! You don’t know WHO L is?!! How long have you been going to youth group?!
To Daughter: Ask G who she is then go ask her if you can speak with her privately.
I told her to text me after she’d spoken with her.
An agonizing 15 minutes passed. I texted her for a status update.
Daughter: Umm. . . I just ate Doritos and my breath STINKS so I’m gonna wait, say… five minutes?” (Stalling tactic.)
Ten more agonizing minutes.
Daughter: She is talking to someone else, so I’ll wait until she’s done.
Me: Who’s she talking to?
Daughter: Another leader.
Me: That’s interruptible. Go talk to her.
Daughter: I’m nervous, Mom. I don’t know what to say. I can’t do it (10 successive sad faces). ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹ ☹
Me: Would you like me to call her and tell her you’d like to speak to her?
I was miserable. I pressed on, but not before I beat myself up a bit. “I’ve scarred my kid for life,” I thought. I should’ve pulled her off the bus when I had the chance. I am the most terriblest, awfulest, horriblest, yuckiest, worstest, no good, very bad mom in the whole world!! … No, I’m not. It’s the youth group leaders’ fault. They should have noticed she was sitting alone! No. It’s the church’s fault for having a stupid retreat and for taking a stupid bus with stupid seats. Why couldn’t they have taken stretch limos so everyone could sit together?”
“No,” I finally concluded, “it’s my fault! What have I done?!” I briefly debated between 1) driving to California (from Colorado) to pick her up or 2) arranging to have her fly home in the morning.
Get it together, I thought. Look at yourself. You just gave your daughter the “trust in God” talk. Are you trusting in God? I knew I wasn’t and felt totally justified because my daughter was st…st..stuck on a bus all alooooone! After every plan I formulated, I was met with a resounding: trust!
I pulled myself together and called my daughter.
“You can do this,” I encouraged her. “Put the phone in your pocket while I hold on and go talk to the youth leader. It will be like I am right there with you.” (Thank God for modern technology.)
That seemed to give her some comfort and confidence. She approached the leader and spoke to her. From what I could make out, the leader encouraged her to rejoin the girls, whom she said had wondered why she had gone to the front of the bus to sit with her brother.
Fifteen minutes later, she texted me.
Daughter: I’m talking with the other girls! It’s working!
Me: I knew you could do it. I‘m thankful that you had the confidence to approach the girls. How do you feel? Call me when you get a chance.
I didn’t hear from her again until the return trip home.
Life is full of new situations, and kids are always meeting new people as they’re growing up, especially if they relocate frequently as I did as an Army brat. Situations that can trigger social anxiety include:
- Meeting and talking to new people
- Being in new situations, such as the start of a new school year
- Being the center of attention, such as a birthday party
- Speak to others
- Feeling like you don’t know what to say, usually at parties or other social gatherings
Some of these situations are unavoidable. As a parent, how do you help kids conquer social anxiety and develop true grit?
In extreme cases of social anxiety, professional help may be necessary.
But, sometimes we can help kids develop skills to overcome it. Theater has been a great outlet for my daughter. She’s still shy, but acting helps build confidence.
Teach kids compassion by helping them recognize social anxiety in others.
Kids may not naturally recognize awkwardness in others. We have to teach them to have awareness of others. Many times kids with social anxiety are seen as disinterested or unfriendly.
Surprisingly, these kids want to be included and seen as friendly and sociable but fear or anxiety holds them back.
Sometimes, they just need a little encouragement or an invitation to get involved.
These are signs your kids can look for in others that may indicate anxiety:
- Kids in a social setting who are preoccupied with reading, writing, drawing, or texting
- Kids who embarrass easily
- Kids who won’t meet other people’s eyes
- Kids who sit by themselves
- Kids who spend a lot of time in the bathroom
- Ask your child how she would feel if she were sitting alone
When you or your child spots someone who seems uncomfortable, invite that child to join the group or invite the person to sit with her.
We never want to see our kids struggle to fit in. But, as parents, it’s our job to help them develop into confident adults.
So, we have to put them in uncomfortable situations so their confidence grows. Instead of coddling kids, give them the skills necessary to succeed.
And to do that, a little struggling is necessary.
What are methods you’ve used to help a child who is socially awkward?