As a therapist, I’ve had many parents express concerns to me that their child may be socially stunted after spending the majority of the last year and a half online. I’m equally concerned that my daughter born during the pandemic has not met nearly as many people as babies typically do. And even if our children seem fine now, we worry that they may develop social anxiety over time.
My professional expertise has good news for you (and me): humans are often more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. So while your child may be taking more time to meet developmental milestones, this does not mean that they are going to develop a social disorder. However, if you are concerned, here are some tips for navigating your child’s new social experience.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety as a diagnosable disorder is different from general anxiety. However, the distinction between the two is not important if you are concerned about your child. Instead, I want to highlight behaviors that may indicate your child needs more support. Social anxiety is about more than being shy or afraid to go to school, as these may be developmentally appropriate given your child’s age/circumstances. Instead, here are some things to look out for:
- Negative Friend Interactions
Your child says that they do not have any friends, or that they worry that other children will not accept them.
- Low Self-Esteem
Your child speaks about themselves in very negative ways or demonstrates a lack of confidence in themselves.
- Lack of Assertiveness
Your child is afraid to ask for help from teachers or peers.
Your child is afraid to have difficult conversations.
- Lack of Communication Skills
Your child is afraid to ask for help, hold a discussion or display open body language in conversation (eye contact, standing up straight, open arms, etc)
The Pandemic Catalyst
For many children with social anxiety, school environments provide the needed exposure to social situations to help them overcome their social anxiety. When the pandemic moved school online, children were no longer interacting with their peers in the same ways. This led to children already at risk for developing social anxiety to feel more alone and unsure how to communicate. Younger children have shorter attention spans and may have struggled to communicate with their friends over video calls. However, this form of communication is still communication and does not mean that your child will develop social anxiety.
What Can I Do As A Parent?
As a parent, there are things you can do to help improve your child’s social functioning and lower their anxiety. Returning to school may be destabilizing for your child, especially because they have not been exposed to this many children for this long in over a year.
Practice With Friends
A big part of this is preparing them for difficult situations with friends. This means talking through what is going to happen beforehand, including who is going to be involved and what will be expected of your child. You can also help your child roleplay conversations that concern them, such as asking a teacher or friend for help.
Be A Role Model At Home
Provide support for your child at home. Research indicates that familial support can make a large difference in their ability to cope with conflict or navigate peer activities. Our lives as parents are busy, but it is important for our children to know that we hear them. This models listening behavior for them and helps them learn how to communicate better with their friends.
Practice Coping Skills
Additional coping skills include teaching your child how to regulate their emotions in stressful situations. Your child can begin to regulate their emotions using deep belly breathing before difficult interactions. Teach them about negative self-talk, such as “I’m alone” or “No one would want to talk to me anyway” This helps them challenge negative self-talk with more truthful statements like “I’m a good friend” or “I’m worthy”.
Lean On Professionals
As much as we want to provide all the support our children need, we are not able to do this. Sometimes, your child may need professional help from a therapist to help them with social anxiety. In therapy, your child will learn how to make new friends, ask for support from adults, and assert themselves in difficult situations. They will use roleplays to learn how to maintain a conversation or listen to remember. They will also receive non-judgemental support when they transition to new experiences, like moving to a new school or joining a new extracurricular activity.
If you have any concerns about helping your child transition back to social activities, please seek professional help for them. A school counselor can be a good place to start or recommend someone in your community. Your pediatrician may be able to help as well. The important thing is that you and your child know that you do not have to feel isolated as you navigate what is next for your family.
Elise Champanhet is a Mental Health Therapist seeing individuals seeking physical, emotional, and mental wellness at Optimum Joy Clinical Counseling in the Greater Chicago Area.