It’s hard to watch your child struggle with anything as parents or guardians. We need to know when to step in and help them with the shoelace they have tried to tie ten times or when to let them handle things on their own.
Children (and adults!) often learn through try and repeat methods. For example, a child might figure out that their block tower will fall when they put the 12th block on top. After that, they only build up to 11th if they want the block tower to stay upright. That seems simple enough, but how do we help them with the deeper issues? What if our child struggles with the difficulty of social anxiety — how do we help them then?
With children, there is no one size fits all. Perhaps only one part of the following will help, or maybe each one of these simple practices will help.
Here are some tools you can use to help your child with social anxiety:
Rehearse Daily Support Mantras
Words are powerful, and they can help the mindsets of children as well as adults. These daily sentiments can be mantras or special word reminders that young minds can easily remember. Then, when they feel tense and like butterflies are playing too rough in their tummies, your child can easily recall their calming or empowering saying to help self-soothe.
Positive Daily Affirmations for Children:
- I can do hard things (My favorite for many situations)
- I can be brave, and it’s ok to be scared
- Confident, Calm, Collected
- I can make friends
- I like to try new things
- Any special term or word that is specific to you and your child. Possible examples might come from your child’s favorite book or movie.
Read Subject-Specific Books Out Loud
There are many stories that help children work through problems that they might come upon in life, such as social anxiety. For example, you can read aloud books on how to make friends.
- Before reading, tell your child about the book you will be reading.
- During story time, let them stop you and ask questions, as long as it relates to the book. You can also ask reflective questions to help guide your learner’s understanding.
- After reading, make it personal. Talk to them about what the story reminds you about, and ask if they can tell you their favorite part of the story.
Hypothetically, if the story is on how to help them make friends, ask your child how they approach making friends. Are they like the character in the story? If yes, how so? What might make building new friendships difficult?
Targeted questions will help you better understand your child’s perception and give you the chance to help more effectively.
Pretend play or role-play is a safe way for you to practice common types of social situations with your child. Play is a fun way to learn and safely experience new emotions, build empathy, and strengthen imaginations.
You can help them by setting up situations where they might be hesitant. Then, through play, help them become more at ease. Play restaurant, school, grocery store, or pet store — the options for play are endless. To make the play more believable, it helps to have toy props.
Example of Pretend Play:
Your child loves to make things, so you are playing engineer! Set up blocks and play tool sets for your child to choose from. Let them know you need help: You need a car for the doll or other toy to get to their friend's house on the other side of town. Have your child then build up the car for the toy and take her safely to their friend's home on the other side of the room.
Let the play develop naturally and help guide them in the different situations by asking open-ended questions to get them thinking and talking! Puppets and dolls can be wonderful stand-ins for friends and create conversations with those toys during their pretend playtime.
Set Expectations Before
Think about how daunting it can be for us as full-grown adults to go into a situation we are not prepared for! Take time to talk about what will happen, where it will take place and some of the things that they can expect.
We can not prepare them beforehand for unexpected visits or each small interaction. However, we can help with the big or upcoming interactions.
“Aunt Polly is coming to town. On Tuesday, we will go out to lunch with her and her family. Her husband is Uncle Bob, and they have two kids. Remember Jane and Jackson? Jane is four, and Jackson is one. We will eat at Pizza Palace, and you can order whatever Pizza you like. It might be a little noisy, but we will have fun.”
You are telling them what is happening, where it is happening, why it is happening, what will take place while they are there, what their behavior should look like, then possible add-ons before you tell them what will happen at the end.
A new schedule can sometimes upset kids, but fully knowing what’s going to happen can help. Visual learners might appreciate a written schedule or to-do list, or an easy-to-read calendar.
At this point, you can bring up that sometimes unexpected things occur. If unexpected events are dysregulating for your young one, keep their distress tolerance kit nearby. This can feature a fidget toy, favorite stuffed animal, or more.
Each day, after the first time you inform them of the full run down, give simple reminders. Such as two days until lunch with Aunt Polly and her family. How do you feel? Any questions about what we will be doing?
If they know the schedule and what to expect, they will not have to worry about what might happen since they already know. Your child can then relax a little and be in the moment.
Support Lovey or Toy
A toy or lovey ( or stuffed animals) can be beneficial to your child for many reasons. This is something from home and familiar to them in unfamiliar places or with unfamiliar people.
A beloved toy is something that they can hold on to and fidget with. It gives them a place to let their anxious energy escape their bodies in a healthy manner. Your child can explain to their toys what’s happening and express their feelings to this “confidant,” which is a key way to practice communication skills.
How To Help Calm Down an Upset Child
We can help prepare everything correctly, but meltdowns can and will happen. Hopefully a rare occurrence, but when it does happen, the most important thing we can do as a parent is to be calm in their storms.
We need to model calm behavior for them, let them know they are safe and that we understand their difficulties. Empathy will help bring them back to the center faster than command words. Instead of commanding a child to be quiet, it can be more constructive to say something like, “I know this is hard for you; let me help.”
Calming Breathing Practices
Bringing your child back to theirbreaths is a calming toolyou will always have with you no matter where you are.
Here are different calming breaths you can try with your child:
- Balloon Breath:The arms start at the side. As you breathe in, the arms come up filling with air, and then once at the top together, they start to let out the breaths slowly. The breath is complete when the arms are back at the sides deflated. Repeat one to five times or more if required.
- Counting Breath:Breath in for a count of five, breath out for a count of eight. You will need to count for your child while they breathe. Have them close their eyes or look at you during this breath (this mimics the sleep cycle breathing and tricks our mind into sending out signals for relaxation).
- Lions Roar:Breathe in through the nose and then make an HAAAsound by pushing the breath forcefully out with a nice big open mouth, just like a lion would roar.
- Smell the Flower:Pretend to smell a flower with breaths through the nose, then a long slow, gentle breath out to keep the flower petals on the flower.
Model these breaths with your child at home, and they can choose the one they like best. Practice these ahead of time; it’s nearly impossible to learn in a state of heightened emotions.
When they melt down, they will know what you mean when you ask them to breathe with you: It's time for Balloon Breath. Once they have calmed, you can figure out why they melted down peacefully and calmly. Hug your child and remind them they are loved.
Once their social experiences are over, reinforce good things that happened by talking about them. Little rewards are great for positive reinforcement. Ideas for little rewards might be stickers to put on behavior charts or some screen time.
Come home and let them unwind from the pressures of their social adventures. When you go out of your way to show them what went right, they can be proud of themselves and enjoy a job well done. Even if meltdowns occur, you can focus on the positives and talk about their growth: how they acknowledged their feelings and took steps to try to center themselves.
You have the tools to help your child but remember your child has to do the work. They are the capable little ones who can bravely face their challenges because they have you by their side helping.
Pick a mantra, have sensory toys and books ready, prepare them for what to expect when possible, empathetically and calmly help them through rough patches, and find a positive to focus on at the end of social interactions. Give them and yourselves time, then watch them bloom.