How to Help Anxious Kids in Social Situations
Tips for helping reluctant children join in play and group activities
Debbie Weingarten’s son has been going to the same school for three years, loves his teacher and friends, and has a great time once he’s there. But the five-year-old still struggles with drop-off and often cries when Weingarten leaves. Similarly at soccer — which he enjoys — he gets overwhelmed or upset several times a practice and runs off the field.
For many kids, adjusting to social situations — whether it is a birthday party or a play date — can be challenging, even if they want to be there. Big groups of kids can be intimidating for even the most outgoing child, so for those who are sensitive or prone to anxiety it can make for a rocky transition.
“My son is a highly sensitive person, and it takes him quite a long time to feel comfortable in new situations,” explains Weingarten. “I honestly can’t think of a single new situation that has been easy for him. He’s just not that kind of kid.”
It can be painful to watch your child struggle in should-be-fun settings, but there are a few strategies — paired with a good dose of patience — that experts and fellow parents have found to be helpful.
If difficulty in social situations has become a pattern, it’s important to accept that this is part of your child’s personality, not a deficiency.
“Just because lots of kids like birthday parties, it doesn’t mean that it’s some kind of comment on you or your child if they are more trepidatious,” says Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “I think just appreciating that is important, because parents can feel pressure to be like everybody else.”
Weingarten, who also describes herself as sensitive, recalls as a child feeling some of the same feelings her son now has. Still, she admits, “as a parent, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating for me sometimes.” However, she tries her best not to express that frustration to her son. “I never want him to feel like something is wrong with him, or as though he’s defective in any way, or like his feelings aren’t real or legitimate.”
For Emily Popek, rethinking her perception of fun for her five-year-old was key. “It made a difference to realize that just because she was sitting on the sidelines watching didn’t mean she wasn’t enjoying herself. She actually was! So honestly the key for me was just letting go of my own expectations of what her ‘enjoyment’ would — or should — look like.”
Break it down
Once you’ve established that there’s an issue, the next step, says Dr. Busman, is to “break down the situation so you can try to figure out what might be challenging for your child.” Is it separation? Meeting new kids? Being in a big group? Fear of the unknown? From there you can work on strategies to assist your kid.
Knowledge is power
One of the most effective things you can do is arm your child with as much knowledge as possible about the event. Go over where it will be, who will be there and what might happen. Scripting, role-playing and previewing are all excellent tools for the socially anxious kid.
Kathy Radigan’s son — who is now an outgoing college freshman — was speech delayed as a child, which made him nervous about meeting new kids. “But he really wanted to play with kids,” Radigan recalls.
“We used scripting to help him through those first few nervous moments. We would practice role playing,” she adds. “I would do social stories with him about a boy who went to the park and got nervous when he saw the kids.”
The scripts Radigan rehearsed with her son were simple — things like “Hi, I’m Tom. What do you like to play?” She says this was usually enough to break the ice. Looking back, her son says that those early years of scripting and role-playing were a huge help.
The effect of all this previewing and role playing is to make the activity feel less new and scary, so the child is not as easily overwhelmed when it comes time for the real thing. Although not every aspect can be predictable, getting the general sense can help kids feel much more comfortable.
Baby steps and praise
For kids who get nervous in social situations, it’s unrealistic to think that they’ll be able to just jump right in. They may benefit from arriving early or late, and will need to adjust at their own pace. Many will want to hang back for a while to observe before actively participating.
“I work at giving my daughter time and permission to navigate the experience on her own terms,” explains Popek. “I’ll encourage her to take little steps out of her comfort zone, like starting out watching the other kids, then maybe moving closer, then playing nearby to the kids, then eventually actually playing with them.”
Arriving early to scope things out can be another helpful tactic. “If we are going to a new group or activity,” says Weingarten, “it helps to get there fifteen minutes early so we can enjoy the space without the chaos of other kids and settle in slowly.”
Dr. Busman suggests also being open with other parents about what’s going on. While it might feel awkward, it can be immensely helpful to give them a heads up that you might arrive early or late, for example, not out of rudeness but to help your child acclimate. “Most people are really nice,” reminds Dr. Busman, “and are going to say sure, whatever you need!”
And of course every success — whether it’s sitting on the outskirts of a party or fully engaging — merits praise. It can be something simple like, “I love how you went over and sat down to have a piece of pizza.” As Dr. Busman points out, this is a much better tactic than getting into a power struggle about why they aren’t having a good time.
Find a buddy
Sometimes it can be as simple as finding common ground, or arriving with someone with whom your child is already comfortable. Most people feel more at ease entering new social situations with a partner, so why shouldn’t children?
“A lot of kids will tell me they’ll go to practice for example, but only if they know someone who goes there,” explains Dr. Busman. “Which to me is like, alright, get him in the door. So let’s have a buddy.”
Dawn Alicot’s six-year-old is shy until he gets to know people, and she says “sometimes I ease the transition in a larger group by introducing him to someone. I look for common ground.” For example, finding another kid with similar sneakers, or a favorite character on their shirt. After doing this for a while, Alicot says her son started doing it on his own and has successfully made friends this way.
When to push, and when to cool it
As with so many things in parenting, there are times when it’s appropriate to gently push your child, and others when it’s time to back off. “There has to be a middle path,” says Dr. Busman. “Parents also need to have their own level of stress tolerance,” she says, since these things do take time and a lot of gentle nudging — and may result in the occasional meltdown.
If a child doesn’t want to have play dates, for example, Busman suggests pushing but taking it slow by starting with the neighbor’s kid who is a little younger, having it on home turf or starting with very short intervals.
Weingarten acutely understands the balance between making sure her son feels secure with pushing him ever so gently. “I do think we’re at a point,” she says, “where it’s healthy to nudge him out of the nest a little bit, while also understanding that it’s a process unique to him, and that his pacing will not match other kids.”
Similarly, she knows when it’s time to throw up the white flag and retreat. Weingarten notes that “he can get worked up to the point of having physical symptoms — his socks will suddenly feel too tight, his shoes will hurt, his belly will hurt. I believe these sensations are real manifestations of his stress. I know that once he gets to that point, I need to stop and do something to reverse the situation so he can calm down and feel safe again.”
If your child gets to this point, carrying on can be more detrimental in the long-term than pushing through.
Find your tribe
Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. When it seems like everyone else’s kid can jump into social situations with ease it can feel isolating and exhausting.
“I recommend finding someone else who understands,” urges Weingarten. “Another parent. Someone who can empathize with the challenges and the blessings of a child who is anxious or highly sensitive. I went to coffee with a mom from my son’s kindergarten who is also having some similar challenges, and it was such a relief just to talk to someone who gets it. We were able to talk about how frustrating it can be, but also how grateful we are to be raising such feelings-oriented little humans in a world that desperately needs sensitivity and empathy.”