Social anxiety: How to help kids who won't join in

Your child’s not a joiner? Help her get comfortable in a crowd.

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It’s a dream birthday party: bouncy castle, games, prizes, costumed characters and balloons everywhere. So why is your child attached to your leg instead of joining in on the fun?

It’s a scenario that Flin Flon, Man., mom Brandy Leptick knows well. Her five-year-old son, Luc, begs her to stay by his side on the outskirts of the room while he watches other kids enjoy an activity. She often takes part herself, just to encourage him. Leptick tried enrolling Luc in soccer, hoping a team sport would entice him, but Luc only sat on the sidelines. “I resorted to offering him ice cream if he actually played,” Leptick explains. “That didn’t help. Eventually, we just stopped attending. What was the point?”

You anticipate that events like parties and little league will be fun opportunities for your child to build social skills and make memories, but some kids don’t share that perspective. Instead, they’re scared or overwhelmed, and this reaction can catch you off guard. After all, isn’t this the fun stuff? Is there something wrong with him—or how you’ve parented him?

Lorna Berndt Piercey, a psychologist in St. John’s, Nfld., explains that many preschoolers are wary of large groups or trying new things, but as they’re exposed to different experiences, they generally become more at ease. By the time they’re in grade school, most kids can overcome their reluctance through their desire to have fun. But there is scientific evidence that children may be preprogrammed with this hesitant nature from birth, Berndt Piercey explains. So the most important thing is to accept these feelings as valid, and, whenever possible, don’t force him into doing things against his will.

“A child of this nature doesn’t have to be a concern, but you may want to try some proactive techniques to prevent a long-standing habit of not trying anything new,” says Berndt Piercey. Gentle encouragement with open communication works best—getting angry, shaming or blaming can do emotional damage and make him even more timid.

First, find out exactly why your child doesn’t want to take part. “Fear and sensory overload are the two most common reasons,” Berndt Piercey says. If he says an environment is too busy or noisy, try one-on-one playdates or small groups, so he can build up his confidence for a busier setting. Even then, give him a play-by-play of the new activity, and tell him he can take a break or leave early if he feels overwhelmed. (Having an “out” may make him more willing to give it a try.) It’s important that he knows you’re there for him, so at least for now, resign yourself to being the parent sticking around at the party.

A little detective work may be needed to uncover specific fears, so talk it through. If he tried swimming lessons and was terrified, he may apply “the first time” fear to other new experiences. Assure him that you understand, but remind him that he did survive. “Knowing he’ll be OK on the other side is an important step to overcoming fear,” says Berndt Piercey. He may also benefit from scripted words to use, such as how to introduce himself into a group, and advance brainstorming of solutions for situations he finds uncomfortable. Sometimes, you simply can’t stay with him, like at school or daycare, so make a plan with the instructor to ease drop-off and see if she can shed any insight into his reluctance.

In the end, your child will adapt in his own time—or he might never show the enthusiasm for these kinds of experiences that you’d like. That’s OK, too. Many adults are content having a couple of close friends, and enjoy singular activities like running or painting, instead of team sports or group hobbies. As long as your child doesn’t feel bad about himself and can express his wants or needs to you, teachers or a friend, his nature may simply be a part of what makes him unique. Leptick says that there is an upside: lots of extra snuggle time.

Expert tip: If your child is older than four, still gets upset by the idea of leaving your side and won’t interact with even one well-known friend after you’ve tried these strategies, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor to ensure there are no underlying developmental issues.

A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, “Hanging back,” p. 66.

 

Want more tips on how to help your child become more outgoing? Check out this video! 

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