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A friend’s 8 year old daughter is really struggling with social anxiety. She does not want to go to school and refuses to have any play dates. At school drop-off she cries and in the classroom she is withdrawn and does not interact with the teacher or her classmates. Even as a young child she was very shy and did not like noisy or busy spaces, but after spending much of the last two years at home things have grown even worse.
Do you have any tips that might ease her anxiety and help her to enjoy her time at school?
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As a psychologist, I always suggest parents to avoid forced social interactions because it can make social anxiety worse.
A gradual approach is always more practical. Try to take one step at a time. For example, initially you can encourage your child to welcome and greet familiar guests at home. Once comfortable with it, saying hi to a new classmate might not be that difficult for them.
Children with social anxiety usually develop certain defense mechanisms to avoid threatening or challenging situations. They can try to miss out on a class presentation or group activity. If parents feel that the little girl is developing an avoidance behavior they should try to sit with the girl and talk about her feelings. Once she realizes that it is ok to share her fears and anxieties, most likely she will not develop an avoidance behavior toward social situations.
Keeping a liaison with the teacher and school counselor can help a great deal. Develop support strategies in collaboration with the school. Consistent strategies across situations tend to yield better and long lasting results. For example, if the girl feels more anxious while maintaining an eye contact in a social situation, teacher can involve her in an activity of reading in front of the class. Same can be done along with siblings and parents at home. In such reading activity she is part of a social situation where she is being watched and observed by others but direct eye contact can easily be avoided.
Teaching children the deep breathing exercises can also help them in managing their anxiety. Physical exercise and sports can also reduce anxiety.
Parents should be supportive, encouraging, empathetic but try to avoid overprotection. Let the child develop the confidence to speak out for herself.
Both of my daughters went through times of social anxiety. The worst was my oldest daughter who still suffers from it a bit as an adult. She has been able to function fine and recognize what it is and push past it.
What we did was to encourage her every step of the way to go outside of her comfort zone a bit to gradually get accustomed to social situations. We did not shield her but instead gently supported her and provided opportunities for her to socialize with others. We cued her to talk to adults, look them in the eye, use her manners, and do her own talking. We did not speak up for her but instead helped her with what to say to others.
She also had plenty of playdates to learn to interact with friends. We encouraged her to go to her friends' houses to be around other adults as well.
Once she was old enough, I had her answer the phone and speak to whoever was on the phone. As a teen, we encouraged her to take a social job (she worked in a fast-food restaurant) where she had to speak to others frequently.
She has turned out to be a well-spoken and competent young woman who is not a social butterfly but enjoys interactions with others and is a leader in her job. We are very proud of her.