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How a Parent's Social Anxiety Can Impact a Child

"No, you can't go to the party."

Key points

  • About 21 percent of children nationwide (approximately 10,259,000) experienced difficulties making or keeping friends.
  • According to Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 7.1% of the population, approximately 15 million Americans, suffer from social anxiety.
  • Parents can manage their social anxiety by shifting their mindset, embracing the reality that children need friends, and accessing resources.

"I wanted to go to the party but my Mom said no because she didn't know their parents," a 12-year-old girl and former client remarked, when I asked her why she didn't attend her classmate's birthday party. The response sounds somewhat reasonable, except it was the fourth invitation for a social gathering she had begrudgingly declined in the last year.

A desire to connect with her classmates and form friendships was not standing in her way; her mother's social anxiety was.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 7.1% of the population, approximately 15 million Americans, suffer from social anxiety. A number of those individuals are parents. In the same way that humidity affects how we experience heat in the summer, anxiety—especially when unmanaged—can have an impact on the way a child is parented. Social anxiety is "characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations."

Today, more than ever, children gain access to their social networks, outside of the classroom, through their parents. This is especially true during the early and middle childhood years when kids are almost completely reliant on their parents’ resources to experience meaningful connection. Whether it's a play date or a prom date our children—the big ones and little ones—rely on us for transportation, money, cell phone use, a house to meet friends in, and so much more.

When I was a kid growing up in a small town in Illinois, I vividly recall waking up in the summertime, grabbing a bite to eat, and then jumping on my bike to meet up with my friends for hours of play. Today my daughter is the same age I was, 11 years old, when I was free to roam a 3-block radius, to laugh, learn, and grow with my buddies.

Half joking and serious, I tell my partner, "If we send our child down the street to pick up some donuts, I think there's a 50/50 chance she will return safely." Many parents keep their kids closer today for good reasons.

Even with the changing landscape around safety and the uptick in social media use, opportunities to socialize and nurture the bonds of friendship are a major catalyst to healthy outcomes for children. Interactive gaming tools and social media platforms were intended to be a complement to human relationships, not a replacement.

Kids need all the help they can get with friendship building. According to the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, 21.1 percent of children nationwide (approximately 10,259,000) experienced difficulties making or keeping friends. This measure includes kids (ages 6-17) whose parents reported “a little or a lot of difficulty” in this area.

If social anxiety is getting in the way of supporting your child's social development, you're not alone.

During a therapy session, a parent suffering from social anxiety shared, "I cringe when I think of needing to meet, mix and mingle with the other parents. So much of what my daughter goes through at school brings up painful memories of what I dealt with as a kid. I also hate being in social settings. I always have."

His child was isolated and missing out on key opportunities for connection because of her dad's unmanaged social anxiety.

The good news is there is a lot you can do to overcome social anxiety and help your children develop friendships and connections that will ensure they thrive at school and home.

Here are six helpful suggestions:

1. Embrace the reality that your child needs friends. Friendships ground children and positively support healthy mental functioning. They serve as an emotional compass and reinforce the important message, "I belong." Without these stabilizing bonds children can feel lost, like a ship with no rudder. Even children with loving and supportive parents have shared with me, "I love my parents, but it's not the same as having friends."

2. Access resources to help you manage your social anxiety. From seeking professional support to learning more about breathing techniques, there are an endless array of resources available to ensure you conquer social anxiety. A woman I worked with started to go back to the gym after more than a decade not exercising. The daily workout reduced her stress and curbed her social anxiety.

3. Shift your mindset. As I’ve grown in my role as a parent and gained a deeper understanding of the importance of connection and friendship for children, I no longer view supporting my child in the area as optional. It’s a parental obligation. I too have experienced other parents who were less than welcoming when I’ve reached out for a playdate. More than one birthday party invitation for my daughter has gone ignored. Navigating the social landscape is not always pleasant, yet it goes with the territory.

4. Consider the upside. A very cool upside to helping your children maintain the bonds of connection is making new friends yourself. Several warm adult connections and friendships have naturally blossomed out of supporting my child with growing her relationships. In some instances, although our children have gone their separate ways, I still maintain relationships with some of her friend’s parents from preschool.

5. Make it about them. Keep your focus on what the power of building social bonds can do for your children, and not how the process makes you feel temporarily. The more time you invest in supporting your child, the easier managing social situations will become.

6. Look to the future. The research is very clear. When children enjoy grounded connection through friendship, they often perform better academically, socially, and develop resilience skills that last a lifetime. This means a bright future is straight ahead.

At the end of the day, the investment of time and energy spent fostering your child's growth and development, even if you need to work through some discomfort to do it, will pay you back time and again.

More from Sheila Robinson-Kiss MSW, LCSW
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