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Coping With Social Anxiety During Social Distancing

Helping reluctant kids stay connected

Writer: Gia Miller

Clinical Expert: Janine Domingues, PhD

en Español

“She put all of her friends in boxes her school friends were only for school, gymnastics friends were for the gym, and she never invited people over. But now she has no friends to call, and she’s desperate to talk to anyone.

He refuses to video chat because he doesn’t know what to talk about and “it’s not the same.”

Sound familiar? If your child was struggling with social anxiety before social distancing, it’s likely that it’s gotten worse. You want to help, but you’re in uncharted waters and it’s hard to know how.

First of all, your kids are right — it’s not the same. For younger children, it’s tough to play through a screen. For older children (and adults!), it’s challenging to make eye contact and read social cues via video chat. You can only see head and shoulders, and even facial expressions can be hard to read, especially if the other person is moving around and reacting to things going on in their space.

But the more you practice this kind of socializing, the easier it becomes, notes Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s okay to feel awkward in the beginning and get over that hump,” Dr. Domingues says. “In the beginning, what we’re doing is helping kids feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”

Depending on what’s manageable for you and your family, you can experiment with some of the following strategies to help your child settle into these new social norms.

Open the conversation

It sounds simple, but if your child is avoiding connecting with friends, ask why. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of school calls, be uncomfortable with the format, not know what to say or worry about what others may think. Whatever the reason, don’t argue. Instead, show empathy and talk about what’s different or what upsets them. Just understanding your child’s hesitation might reveal some simple solutions — if video chat is what they dislike, maybe a voice-only phone call would work better.

If your child resists sharing, talk about why social connections are important. Encourage them to connect with at least one person, and give examples of how your own social connections have helped you.

Still, it’s important to respect their boundaries and show your child that you’re on their side. “Ask them to give it a try, but give them an out,” suggests Cindy Graham, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Maryland. “For instance, after a few minutes, you’ll pretend it’s time for lunch so they have an excuse to get off the phone if it’s not going well. But if it is going well, they can say they’re not hungry.”

Ease into video chats and real-time communication

If video chats seem too daunting, don’t jump right in. Instead, begin with email, texting or even writing letters. “Often their fear is getting in the way,” Dr. Graham explains. “You can find a way around it by playing a game like Words with Friends where you don’t have to be online at the same time. Build on social interactions this way, working towards an actual face-to-face connection when they’re ready.”

You can also try Marco Polo, a new app which allows you to make and send video messages back and forth. You can add filters, voice effects, draw or add text to your video, then send it to a friend. Encourage your child to make one or two videos a day and slowly increase the length or frequency, building up to a video chat.

Once your child is ready to try some real-time communication, a helpful way to practice is quick daily calls with a family member or someone else they already know and trust. “Start with grandparents because they typically have the time and really want to see their grandchildren,” suggests Michelle Kaplan, LCSW, a clinical social worker. “Plus, it’s generally easier for kids to ease into a new, uncomfortable format with adults they have a relationship with. You can also enlist older cousins or other willing adults — the more practice the better. Once your child is comfortable speaking to adults, then you can try it with a kid their own age.”

These same guidelines apply when it comes to remote learning. If your child is uncomfortable speaking up in a virtual classroom, talk to their teacher and ask to work up to real-time participation. They might start by sending the teacher ideas ahead of time and just listening during class, with their camera and microphone off. Then they might work up text chatting in real time or talking to the class while still keeping the camera off. Going slowly, trying different strategies and giving your child plenty of time to practice can help ease the challenges of this new format.

Calm anxiety by playing games

Games can be a great tool for helping your child get comfortable with video chatting, whether with peers or adults. They give everyone something specific to focus on, help distract your child from their nervousness and turn chatting into something that feels more like play than work.

For young children, try the following games, which can last as little as a minute or two:

  • Scavenger hunt: “Go find something fluffy and bring it right back!” Then, the child describes the object and asks the other person to find something.
  • I Spy: The child shows the other person around their room and then finds what the other person spies.
  • Would You Rather: Be an astronaut or a basketball player? Ski or go swimming? Learn French or Chinese? Plan ahead so your child can ask questions as well, without being put on the spot.
  • Silly Faces and Filters: Express how you’re feeling, demonstrate what you’re thinking or answer questions through filters and effects.

For older children, interactive games will help your child practice turn-taking, problem-solving, partner work and spontaneous conversations.

  • If both people have the same game at home: One player moves the pieces on the board while the other rolls the dice or picks the cards.
  • If one person has the game: You can play games like Boggle with only one game owner. They’ll shake it up, take a picture and send it to the other player.
  • If both people have two devices: Play games like UNO!, Monopoly or Settlers of Catan online with one device while connecting via video on the other.
  • Get creative: You don’t need a board or pieces — our houses are full of useful items that can pull double duty as a game and an opportunity to help your child improve their partnership skills. For example, with just paper and a pen, your child can draw a tic-tac-toe board and the other player can tell them where to write their X or O.

Build up to virtual playdates and group chats

Once your child feels comfortable with it, a real-time playdate is perhaps the best way to help your child enjoy interacting with peers from home. If your child wasn’t interested in playdates before, you’ll need to help them make connections now. Kaplan recommends asking them who they miss the most or if they can think of any kids with similar interests. Reach out to parents through your school’s directory or their extracurricular activity instructor. Set your child up for success by telling the parent your child would like to play a game with theirs and how long you hope the call will last.

If your child was very rigid and didn’t interact with other children outside of the places where they “belonged” (if your daughter only liked to see soccer friends at practice, for example), then work with your child’s rigidity by creating a schedule. On Mondays, chat with a school friend, on Wednesdays a friend from karate, and a cousin on Fridays. Keeping things structured and predictable can ease anxiety and give your child events to look forward to.

For older kids, group chats and virtual activities such as Netflix Party or Houseparty are also important tools for socializing right now. And, according to Kaplan, this won’t go away after quarantine is over. To prepare your child, discuss how to join a group conversation by creating different scenarios. If your child has been a mostly silent participant in group chats or activities, you can review their chat together and discuss where they could jump in and what they could say.

Remember to have patience

Right now, your capacity to guide your child may be limited — and that’s okay! Do what makes sense for you and your family during these stressful times. Remember that your support is valuable and that even small successes are meaningful. Be patient with your child – this is hard for them, too. Always prioritize keeping your relationship positive, and know that any effort you make will benefit your child, even when social distancing is a thing of the past.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.