As the bus taking my daughter to her first high school retreat pulled out of the parking lot, I saw her silhouette through the tinted window. Everyone else in the girls’ section of the bus was paired up. She sat alone.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to chase the bus down the street and snatch her off. Instead, I casually said my good-byes to the other moms in the parking lot, went to my car, and then cried.
Nothing hurts more than seeing my kid struggling to fit in socially. As mom emotions go, it’s one of the worst. It’s a terrible, awful, no good, very bad feeling. As much as I’d like to spare my kids the pain of an uncomfortable situation, I know that’s not always what’s best for them.
With the start of a new school year, I’m probably not the only mom who’s worried about my kids who struggle socially.
Some kids breeze through the parties and new circumstances while others struggle or are anxious in social situations. If you’ve never struggled, you may not understand.
I understand social anxiety well because I struggled socially as a kid. 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 struggled socially: shy, weird, stuck up. And those kids just went about life as best they could.
It’s hard watching your child struggle. I’m happy to share how I help my kids calm social anxiety:
Acknowledge fears. Everyone wants to feel like someone understands. It’s comforting to know that someone recognizes and cares about what you’re going through.
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 them. I remind my kids that it’s normal to be a little uncomfortable in a new situation, and they’re probably not the only one feeling that way. I also remind them of their past successes in new situations.
3. Encourage Participation
I was surprised when my daughter asked to attend the retreat. 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 a mom, I want to keep them safe within the walls of their comfort zone. Heck, I’d like to stay in that zone myself. But, as much as I want to protect them, I have to encourage (and allow) them to participate.
4. Find a Friend
Sometimes kids with anxiety do better in a one-on-one or small group situation. I teach them how to create their own one-on-one situation. When she walks into a new situation, I 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 conversation skills.
5. 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.
6. Teach Social Skills
Knowing what to do in social situations builds confidence. I teach social skills, including manners and conversation skills.
I provide 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 kids will be equipped with alternatives when in social situations. Everyone’s not going to “play nice,” so help them prepare for that. Teach how to handle awkward situations with grace, which will build confidence.
So, your kid’s taken the big step and attended a social function, invited friends over, or conjured up the courage to join a groups of kids at lunch. Praise her or him. Use language that puts them in touch with how they felt when they 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 them an awareness of what they did and how it made them feel. If they felt good, they’re likely to want to repeat the behavior. If things don’t turn out so well, tell them you’re thankful they were confident enough to approach the situation and handle it with grace.
9. Infuse Faith
Prayer always helps (for the both of us). At times when my kids doubt they can do something, I remind them of God’s promises like the one in Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.
Honestly, my heart sank when my daughter boarded that bus. I choked back the urge to put her back in the car. Instead, I gave her a pep talk, reminded her of our practice, and put her on the bus. I was miserable.
About an hour later, I called her and encouraged her to approach a leader and express how she felt.
That seemed to give her some comfort and confidence. She approached the leader, spoke to her, and I didn’t hear from her again until she got home.
It’s heartbreaking to watch kids struggle to fit in. But, as a parent, my job is to help them develop into confident adults. Unfortunately, I’ll have to suffer that terrible, awful, no good, very bad feeling to help them grow. I’ve got to resist the urge to coddle and give them the skills necessary to succeed.
And to do that, a little struggling is necessary.
How do you help a child with social anxiety?