Most of us have felt shy before. Maybe we’re about to walk onstage in front of an audience, or maybe we’re entering a party where we don’t know many people. But for some kids, social anxiety can be almost debilitating. When it comes to talking to people, they freeze up and feel utterly self-conscious, as if eyes are judging their every move, every breath. So they avoid social situations of any kind. They withdraw. It becomes a vicious cycle of not making many friends and then beating themselves up over it.
“Left untreated, social anxiety in childhood limits opportunities and can lead to difficulties academically, socially and professionally in adulthood,” says Tamar E. Chanksy, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. It’s surely a frightful and frustrating thought for any parent — but most of all, it’s heart-breaking to see your child shutdown like this when you know of all their great potential.
But you’re child isn’t alone. About five percent of the child population suffers from social anxiety, which is expressed through actions like clinging or hiding at school or parties, not being able to order at restaurants or avoiding eye contact, even with relatives.
Thankfully, social anxiety is treatable, and your child can learn how to become as confident as they should be through a few proven and practical strategies.
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1. Take a look-see.
Let your child see him or herself in a mirror or on a video or tape recorder to see how they look and sound when they smile and speak. This exercise empowers them to take more control over their body language, tone of voice, and the social messages they send out to the world. Allow them to experiment with different impressions until they feel comfortable with themselves.
Start by having simple, but realistic conversations, about things like school or homework. Then start mixing it up by having them imitate different people from school or even television characters. Let them explore different variations of each character. Rehearse ordering at a restaurant, and have the “waitress” be nice at first, and then grumpy. Now your child will feel more prepared and not thrown by the idea of different possibilities.
3. Mistakes aren’t so bad.
“If what children are afraid of is making mistakes, don’t let mistakes be a mystery,” Chanksy states. “Practice them on purpose so they can see that mistakes can be finessed, are survivable and part of the human condition.” When ordering at a restaurant or while talking on a phone call, make a verbal “mistake,” so your child can observe how you handle the situation. This will help them realize that mistakes don’t necessarily ruin a social interaction. Try rehearsing similar situations, and then writing a wrong word on their “script” card, so that when they mess up, they realize that it’s not the end of the world. This exercise will also help them become more comfortable with taking the initiative or saying things like, “Let me try that again,” or “Right, so where were we?”
These simple solutions can help parents prevent their children from needlessly suffering today—and ensure that their children have the tools they need for a good life tomorrow. For more information on helping a child that is stressed-out and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, check out Freeing Your Child from Anxiety by childhood anxiety expert, Dr. Tamar Chansky.
Illustration: Marie Guillard