"My tummy hurts. I don't want to go to school today."
If you're the parent of a child who suffers from social anxiety, you know that that tummy complaint is not because they are coming down with a bug, but because your child is freaking out about something. Sure enough, when you dig a bit, they will tell you that today they have to stand in front of their classmates to give a presentation.
So, what exactly is social anxiety? It's the fear of common social situations. More concisely, it's the fear of being judged or evaluated by others during these encounters. Interestingly, it can even be the fear of being judged positively! If one's desire is to fit in and not be noticed, to not draw attention to oneself, then it makes sense that you wouldn't want to be recognized as the student of the week and stand out above your peers.
Frankly, do any of us like being evaluated by others?! Almost none of us do.
Human beings are wired to live in groups, so things like social acceptance and fitting in are important to us all. We all worry about social situations to some extent. And so, a person's level of "social anxiety" falls along a continuum, from feeling a tad concerned at one end of the spectrum to having a full-blown panic attack at the other.
As a parent, we can help our children understand this continuum concept and work with them to ensure they get to a place that isn't interfering with their ability to get the most out of life.
Here are five tips parents can implement to move towards this goal:
1. Don't pity children or get angry
The child's distorted thinking or inaccurate appraisal of social threats may seem irrational to you, but regardless, it's important not to get angry at them. Yelling, "It's just a presentation! Pull yourself together and get to school! I can't take another day off work for you," is not going to quell their anxiety. But, neither should we pity children. Pity communicates that we don't have faith in them. Being empathetic and caring is best.
2. Become an anxiety expert
If you have a child who has anxiety issues, you'll need to learn about how anxiety works so you can teach your child about the psychological and physical phenomena they are experiencing. AnxietyBC.org is a great resource that has both a parent and child section with activities. If your child's anxiety is severe, consider counselling. It can be very effective.
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3. Practice mindfulness
Meditation can help children better understand their thoughts by observing them without giving them too much importance.
Being conscious and recognizing/labelling thoughts can help kids lessen the power of what's going on in their mind. For example, with attention we can notice, "Oh, I recognize that familiar thought; that is called 'worried I'll be embarrassed,' and this one is called 'worried I'll be disliked.'"
In fact, kids can see these thoughts as bullying notions that are pushing them around and making them unhappy. As parents, we can coach them to stand up to the bully by not listening to those thoughts and choosing other ones instead. Suggest retaliations to negative bullying notions with lines such as, "you are not going to stop me from making friends" or "you are not going to stop me from going to the school dance."
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4. Try an "exposure ladder"
Create a list of challenges with your child that are arranged from the least stress-inducing for them to the most challenging that they feel they can manage. An example might be:
- Sit at a table with other students in the cafeteria.
- Look one of the other students in the eyes at the table.
- Ask one of the other students at the table a question.
- As they successfully reach each step in the ladder, they will grow their courage and willingness to expose themselves to more uncomfortable or stressful situations.
5. Try not to allow avoidance or evasion
If you have suffered with anxiety, you may be so empathetic that your first inclination is to rescue your child and rearrange life so they can evade and avoid their social anxiety.
But, if you drive them to school so they don't have to stress about riding the bus with others, or if you get them excused from giving presentations in front of the class, they'll never get the chance to flex their "I can do it" muscle. No progress will be made and you will be confirming their self-estimation of being incapable. Instead, try to establish higher resiliency and belief in themselves to manage their anxiety and have the upper hand over it.