Calvin, via Flickr, Creative Commons
Source: Calvin, via Flickr, Creative Commons

My three-year-old has been diagnosed with social anxiety by a developmental specialist. His preschool teacher tells me he is ‘just shy’. Should we worry that the teacher is not taking the diagnosis seriously? What can we do to help our child?

Social Anxiety and Shyness: What’s the Difference?

There’s a wide range of what’s “normal,” when it comes to social confidence. That’s true for adults, and it’s even truer for small children. Some toddlers are easily confident with strangers, and enjoy interactions with people they don’t know very well. Other toddlers are more skeptical, and don’t welcome people’s attention until they’ve gotten to know them. We can think of those children as ‘shy.’ Still others are immobilized with fear and anxiety when they are in social situations. That kind of intense reaction is what is sometimes labelled ‘social anxiety.’

If a teacher reads a child as “shy” rather than suffering from social anxiety, the child is probably handling the social experience of the classroom pretty well, which calls into question the social anxiety diagnosis.

Warning Signs for Social Anxiety

We want our kids to pay attention to the dangers in their environment. But when does a healthy concern become pathological? When should we consider the possibility of social anxiety? Here are some behaviours Anne Marie Albano suggests you look for:

  1. Is your child uncomfortable speaking to adults or other children, even when they’re familiar with them?
  2. Does your child avoid eye contact, mumble, or speak very quietly when addressed by other people?
  3. Does your child blush or tremble around other people?
  4. Does your child cry or throw a tantrum when confronted with new people?
  5. Does your child express intense worry about doing or saying the wrong thing?
  6. Does your child complain of physical problems like stomach aches, and want to stay home from school, field trips, or parties?
  7. Does your child withdraw from activities, and want to spend all their time at home?

Dynamic Tension: Identify Problems Early vs. Avoid Pathologizing Normal Development

It’s good to identify potential problems early, and address them before they get bigger. When differences are seen as learning opportunities, they often become strengths for kids. This is as true for social concerns as it is for slower development of attention, physical co-ordination, or reading.

But avoid the label unless necessary. A good rule of thumb with children’s differences from others is to avoid using an official-sounding label unless it’s absolutely necessary for the child to get the necessary treatment. That’s as true for social anxiety as it is for learning disabilities as it is for giftedness.

Labels bring problems, including the sense there is something (permanently) wrong with the child. That can erode confidence, as well as the natural learning and growing processes that would otherwise lead to the child overcoming the problem. Most times, solutions can be found without the use of a scary label.

Coping Mechanisms: Support Your Child’s Confidence in Social Situations

  1. Start with yourself. If you’re anxious in social encounters, you’re transmitting that anxiety to your child. Just like parents can teach kids to welcome or fear dogs or caterpillars, they can teach them to welcome or fear other people.
  2. Be positive. Social anxiety is a worry about the judgement of others. So, don’t criticize your child’s behaviour or interactions with others. Instead, look for sources of celebration and congratulation.
  3. Look at the teacher as a problem-solving ally. Teachers are not always right, and a given teacher is not always good for a given child, but things usually go better for a child when their parents work constructively and respectfully with the teacher.
  4. Deep breathing. One of the oldest tricks for reducing anxiety: take a deep breath. And then take another. Magic. I’ve seen children as young as 18 months learn to do this.
  5. Quiet alone-time. Daycare and preschool are stressful places for young children. Sometimes what looks like social anxiety is a normal and healthy need to be on one’s own for a few minutes. Every child should have a safe space they can choose to retreat to for quiet alone-time.
  6. Mindfulness. When toddlers learn to pay attention to their own feelings, they can activate coping strategies as needed, like breathing deeply, or taking a few minutes on their own.
  7. Role play. Invent social situations with your child, and play-act them together. Be as creative as you want, bringing costumes, props, siblings, and stuffed animals into the action if you like.
  8. Read books about social problems and confidence. Then talk about what’s going well (or badly) for the characters.  
  9. Outdoor play. Spending time outdoors running, swinging, digging, and playing, has many benefits, one of which is reducing anxiety. This is as true for children as it is for adults.  
  10. Gratitude. Teach your child the habit of looking for sources of gratitude. That helps change the emotional channel from fear to gratitude.
  11. Fun social activities. Identify activities your child enjoys, whether it’s musical, athletic, or something else. Then look for circumstances where they can participate in those activities with others of their age.
  12. Respect your child’s temperament. Your child may need more alone-time than others, and may take longer than others to warm up to strangers. That’s okay, and not something to fix.
  13. Trust your child’s competence. Don’t try to protect them from social interactions by speaking up for them, or allowing them to avoid all social activities. Overprotection is crippling.
  14. Baby steps. Learning happens one small step at a time. Take your child’s social learning as slowly as necessary, remembering there will be bad days as well as good along the way. Think of every “failure” or problem as an opportunity to regroup, rethink, and try again.
  15. Balance. Allow your child the alone-time and downtime they need, as well as opportunities for positive social engagement.
  16. Trust your gut. If you’ve helped your child with coping mechanisms, and worked with the teacher, and you still feel your child’s needs are not being well met, it’s time to seek further professional help, advocate for change at your child’s school, or change schools.

For more on these topics:

Social Phobia,” by Sarah Chana Radcliffe

The Fear Fix, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe

When young people suffer social anxiety disorder: What parents can do,” by Anne Marie Albano

Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler with Social Anxiety,” by Arlin Cuncic

Social Anxiety Disorder,” by Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Social Anxiety in Children,” by Raising Children Network

When to Worry About Your Child's Worries,” by Child Mind Institute

Ten Great Children’s Books for Teaching Social Skills,” by The Positive Classroom

Books About Feelings for Babies and Toddlers,” by Zero to Three

Helping Children with Anxiety,” by Living the Life Fantastic

How Practicing Gratitude Can Help Reduce Your Child’s Anxiety,” by Living the Life Fantastic

Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability,” by Dona Matthews

Ungifted, by Scott Barry Kaufman

Choose Health, Happiness, and Creativity: Start by Taking a Deep Breath,” by Dona Matthews

Keep It Simple! 3 Parenting Tips for a Healthy Life Balance,” by Dona Matthews

Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

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