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I’ve been there. I’m raising a socially anxious child who’d feel awkward/reluctant/scared of interacting with anyone (really, anyone) other than my husband and me. We were able to notice this trait quite early on (at the age of 1.6 years) and yes, it was difficult.
Difficult because she’d always be clinging on whenever someone entered the house (even someone from the family, known to us). At the park, she’d hide behind me each time another kid came closer to play with her. She wouldn’t want to mingle with other kids or play with them - she was happy playing alone, all by herself.
The same was the case at home. She’d love to stay home in her comfort zone and would never want to go visit family. Now this was the toughest part for me. They’re my parents - how can I not go visit them? And the struggle began - trying to convince her to come along.
7 years down, I’m able to write this post today, having lived every single day with my child who’d get anxious/awkward seeing people (even known faces). I’d admit - she still is somewhat the same - though as she’s growing older, there have been improvements. Age and the growing-up process definitely play a role here; however there are a couple more things that have really helped bring about a small but definite change in her personality.
Here I share some of those learnings with you (in case you’re struggling with the same or similar issues with your child). This can be a tough phase, I know, but a few things listed below have helped me along the way.
How to Help a Socially Anxious Child - Parents Have an Important Role Here
Since your child feels awkward in social settings, he/she is inevitably going to rely on you for support. Here’s how you can offer help in making the situation better for your child.
1. Look at things through their eyes
Are we always comfortable talking to every person around us? Suppose we live in an apartment of 250 houses. Do we talk to every person living in that building? Forget the whole building, sometimes we may not even know the person living next door! Or, even if we do, we may not really talk much to the person/family living there.
Why is it so? Nothing against them in particular. It’s just that we don’t always feel comfortable talking to just everybody we know. It takes a while for us to warm up a little to the person, develop an acquaintance perhaps, before we can actually consider befriending our neighbor.
Now take the same situation with your child. Isn’t he/she in the same shoes as you? Your child doesn’t know the person (even if they may be your friend); how would the child be instantly comfortable to greet/wish them? It’s natural, right? And aren’t we forgetting here that kids only know how to be natural and nothing else?
And yes, there’s another point I’d like to make here. If we adults, who’ve been on this planet for many years now, still take a while to warm up to the idea of greeting/talking to someone, would it be fair to expect our children (who’re so new to the world) to say “hello” to somebody?
Looking at things through the child’s eyes, putting ourselves in their position does make a difference now, doesn’t it?
[I won’t change the way my child views the world, instead I will change the way the world views my child] - Wonderbaby.org
2. Understand the child’s feelings. Accept them for who they are
Trust me, that’s all your child is asking for or expecting of you when they feel anxious. At that moment, what helps the most is you understanding how your child’s feeling - whether or not they’re comfortable with what is being expected of them in the situation - and just supporting them in what they actually want to do at that point of time.
Of course, it’s important for you to first understand that your child isn’t abnormal - that there’s nothing wrong with him/her and that social anxiety is not a serious problem. As I mentioned earlier in the post, it’s only natural for the child to feel a bit anxious interacting with a complete stranger.
As for people known to us (family and relatives), again it’s just a matter of time that the child slowly but surely gets comfortable with the family members. For some kids, comfort happens automatically with the people closest to them or with whom they spend most part of the day - their parents or sibling(s). And anyone else outside that circle needs to wait a while before the child can get equally or even somewhat comfortable with them.
All that’s required here is patience on the family’s part (for you as a parent, that’s an absolute must). And I know how hard it is, as I say this, because you’d find yourself losing temper, feeling frustrated, sometimes even breaking down when your child doesn’t go to anybody and loves clinging on. But, patience and empathy, my friend, are key here.
3. Don’t forget to praise small efforts; appreciate small wins
Remember always that your child is also part of the struggle. It’s not just you struggling to make him/her comfortable with his/her family, friends or peers. So each time you notice any improvement in your child’s behavior (however small or minor it may be), don’t forget to appreciate it in front of your child.
Imagine the child talked to another child for just 5 minutes on their own (without you having to push it), and either you noticed this yourself or your child comes and happily announces this to you - make sure you praise the effort. It’s a great booster to his/her self-confidence.
A socially anxious child is not abnormal. They’re just acting their natural self. I mean, how often does an adult feel comfortable talking to a stranger spontaneously? Is it fair to expect the same from a child?
4. Talk to the child; explain the importance of social skills
This is what’s going to help you get to your goal - slowly but surely. Talking to kids helps a great deal (I’m a strong promoter of this idea) and I’ve seen the change in my kids. So what’s needed here is you gently sowing the seed/idea of the importance of social skills in your child’s mind. But do remember - no pushing, no threatening, no bribing.
What might help you though is (I tried this) perhaps a role play of the exact situation that your child is going to be in. Let’s say, you have guests coming over. Rehearse the situation with your child (perhaps even provide them with a ready-made script!) No kidding here, it really works. Just tell your child that all they’re expected to do is say “hello”. If someone asks their name, answer. If they ask, “how are you”, say “I’m fine, thank you!”
You’re slowly and steadily helping your child understand the meaning of social skills and how to adopt them in their life.
5. Help your child understand the meaning of true friendship
Your child is perhaps scared of mingling with their peers because they feel that they’d be made fun of - especially if they appear to be “slightly different” from the crowd. It’s then important as a parent to explain to the child that such children don’t really deserve to be their friend. A true friend is someone who’d accept you for who you are and still want to be with you - whether you tremble while answering questions or sweat when feeling nervous - they’d still stick around with you.
School photo created by pressfoto - www.freepik.com
6. Encourage friendship with like-minded children
This is the best way to go about making your kid comfortable with people outside. Instead of forcing them to be friends with just everyone out there, try looking for people with a similar mindset or interests as your child.
This would make it much easier for your child to take the first step to making friends. Look for what your child’s interested in - music, dance, reading - and then find like-minded kids around you who you can introduce to your child. Usually, your child would find it easier to connect with such kids and start becoming comfortable slowly.
What You Should Avoid Doing with a Socially Anxious Child
1. Don’t push it
It’s natural to give a gentle nudge each time your child is confronted with a situation where they feel socially anxious or awkward. At parties, in a playground, at school - anywhere where the general norm expected of a child is to greet, smile and start mingling with other kids, almost immediately.
You don’t have to follow that norm. Trust me here. Be brave and do something different, for the sake of your child. Avoid pushing him/her to go ahead and greet others/talk to them, if the child isn’t comfortable yet or doesn’t want to. Remember the first point in the post “Looking at things from the child’s eyes” and remind yourself that your child’s looking up to only you for support.
Avoid nudging/nagging/pushing the child to go say “hello” or play with other kids. Give them time. If the child feels like doing so from within, encourage it. But don’t force. Also, avoid bribing the child with a reward/prize/incentive for doing so.
2. Don’t punish the child for not behaving “as expected”
You wouldn’t be helping anyone here - neither the person with whom you want your child to develop friendship/warm up to, nor your child. Definitely not your child. Remember he/she is only being their natural self and it isn’t a crime to behave slightly different from others. So don’t punish the child if he didn’t talk to anybody at the party or didn’t play with children his age.
3. Avoid giving surprises
A child who feels socially anxious is better off with routines or predictable situations. This is because they like to be in their comfort zone. So any new change means one step outside of their comfort zone for them.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with change. In fact, your child would have to face it at different stages in life - joining school, meeting new people other than parents, such as teachers and friends, and many other such changes.
So, we aren’t talking about keeping the child protected here. We’re talking about avoiding throwing in a surprise to the child. It might help them better if you could talk to them in advance about what they’re going to witness.
For instance, if you’re planning to go to somebody’s house or inviting guests over, your child may behave unusually if they’ve been in for a surprise. My kids would usually start crying at the very moment we entered a friend’s place or even when they came to our place. The moment our friends would say “hi” and lovingly touch my kids, they’d start crying!
It took me a while to understand their reaction, gauge their behavior patterns and figure out ways to avoid similar instances in future. That’s when I started preparing my kids well in advance of any event about to happen in the near future - a visit to an unknown person, plans to call people over, or even a birthday party to attend in the neighborhood.
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I hope this post helps you in some way. I’m raising a socially anxious child myself so I totally understand the feeling when the child acts too clingy - it even gets embarrassing at times. So I’d only say one thing - be patient and become a partner in your child’s journey. Don’t blame them. Don’t label them. Don’t think of it as a problem. Just help them and things will fall in place. I wish you all the very best in your journey!
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