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Spotlight: Helpful strategies for managing social anxiety

Hesitancy or nervousness in social situations is often a part of normal child development, but it can also be a sign of a larger problem.

Hesitancy or nervousness in social situations is often a part of normal child development, but it can also be a sign of a larger problem. If your child is very afraid in social situations, constantly worrying if others are judging them, or seems convinced they will do something embarrassing, these are signs that your child may be experiencing social anxiety.  

While the underlying fears are the same, how children display social anxiety can look different depending on their age. For preschool-aged children, social anxiety often presents as a fear of new things, refusing to speak, or clinging to their parent. In school-aged children, they may be afraid to talk to other kids, worry about what others are thinking, or struggle to engage in activities. For teens, they may not share their fears, but they will likely have difficulties initiating or maintaining friendships, going to school, or even leaving the home. 

If your child is displaying signs of social anxiety, here are some strategies you can try to support them in improving their difficulties:

  • Listen without judgment and validate their feelings, even if you don’t fully understand.
  • Use a “stepladder” approach to help your child engage in the things that scare them. This means encouraging your child to start trying out activities that are hard, but not extremely challenging, and then slowly tackling more distressing situations.
  • When your child engages in a feared situation, offer praise or tangible rewards to encourage them to continue to face their fears.
  • Try role playing anxiety-provoking social situations so they can build confidence in a safe setting.
  • Encourage “detective thinking” by asking questions that encourage more rational thoughts, for example “What is scary about this situation?” or “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
  • Share times when you have been afraid in social situations and how you were able to overcome those fears, so you can help your child recognize that they can work on conquering their fears too.
  • Try your best to avoid labelling your child as “shy” as this can reinforce their behaviours and make them believe it is just who they are, rather than something they can work on. 

While implementing these strategies can require a lot of patience, it can make a meaningful difference in improving your child’s anxiety and social functioning, which can help to create stronger feelings of happiness.  

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