How to Minimize Social Anxiety for Your Child
Do you have accurate knowledge about your child’s social experience in school?
Does your son worry about making friends and ‘fitting in’?
Is your daughter telling you she has friends at school when she really doesn’t?
As adults we can control how much and when we want to socialize but a child does not have that luxury. Young children are often placed in environments, such as school, that requires them to socialize whether they want to or not. For children on the autism spectrum, a school environment just might be their worst nightmare and largest source of anxiety.
When you have a child that struggles with developing social relationships or understanding social cues, school can be a cold, lonely and anxious place.
“Will I make a friend this year?”
“Will everyone ignore me or make fun of me?”
“Will I be bullied?”
These are questions that loom in the mind of many kids as a new school year begins. Worries such as these can make attending school very difficult for them, and their parents.
Some young children wade through this social jungle with very little awareness, yet others have heightened anxiety as they consciously struggle to “fit in”. Making and keeping friends is an important component to creating a positive school experience for your child.
Watching your child struggle to have friends can be heart wrenching, and difficult to accept, but feeling helpless as a parent does not have to be the norm. There are many things you can do to help your child maneuver through this social web.
Here are nine strategies to reduce your child’s social anxiety and boost her social confidence at school:
1 – Be accurate. When young children begin making connections with other individuals, the adults in their lives often apply labels to those relationships. You might say to Susie after she has engaged in some parallel play in the sandbox with another child in the neighborhood, “You have a new friend.” But does Susie really understand what that means? And is it really accurate if they didn’t really interact?
2 – Define friendship. Determine your child’s concept of a friend. Talk to your child about what makes someone your friend. What does a friend look like, act like, sound like, and how do they make you feel? Make the word friend a daily part of your vocabulary. Discuss your friends, past and present, and why you became friends. What made them last and what didn't.
3 – Be a guide. Educate your child and discuss the importance of having similar interests and being curious about what the other person does when making friends. Ask your child to consider what they want to give and receive from a friendship. He may have no idea at first, but brainstorming traits will help create a visual map from which to work. Talk about and role-play ways to be kind, courteous, and appropriately inquisitive about the other person.
4 – Teach how to keep a friend. Making a friend can be easier than keeping a friend. Help your child understand what respect, empathy, turn taking and perspective are. Putting yourself in a friend's shoes and taking their perspective, even on a limited level, is key to maintaining a friendship.
5 - Build empathy. Empathy is a crucial social skill that helps children relate to others and establish positive relationships. A very important part of the journey to is to learn how to love self. If we want any child, regardless of ability, to be empathic towards others we first have to show them how to love - not casually but sincerely. This includes the love for family, friends, neighbors, animals and even adversaries. Love is a feeling that goes beyond loyalty and respect and we learn to love others by loving ourselves first, caring for others and serving them. The article, Enhance Your Child’s Capacity for Self-love, can help you discover some simple ways to build empathy in your child by loving self.
6 – Provide conversation starters. Explore what to say when you meet someone that you want to develop a relationship with. Teach your child various questions to use when meeting a peer, “What do you like to do/play?”, “Where do you live?”, “What is your favorite color?”, “Would you like to play … (kickball, on the swings) with me?” Teach one at a time. Depending on your child’s ability to process new information, wait until one is mastered before moving on to another. Then prompt your child with a review before joining a social situation.
7 – Encourage social interactions. Providing ample opportunities for your child to engage socially is important. Invite old or new classmates over, so your child can get to know them better and practice his social graces. Go over manners, conversation starters, and scripts with your child before the guest arrives. Always keep your child’s interests and curiosities in mind, and keep on the lookout for groups that share the same.
8 – Never force your child to interact. Do your homework before you bring your child to a social setting. Prepare her for the experience and coach her with the social skills you have been practicing together. When you get there, gently prompt and encourage but if you are sensing anxiety and resistance, simply observe and don’t push. Instead, use the situation in front of you to talk to your child about what is occurring – who is being kind, how they are taking turns, how they resolve conflict, etc. You can always wait until later to use the situation as a teaching tool.
9 – Ask “what if”? Use your home environment and television as a natural laboratory for learning social skills. While watching movies with your child, stop the action and inquire what she might do in a similar situation, especially when there is a questionable or challenging social interaction portrayed. This will trigger her social brain to engage and help develop new neural pathways. Be mindful about posing social questions whenever the opportunity arises.
As these skills are being taught it’s important to practice them whenever possible. Giving children ample opportunities to apply friendship-making skills is extremely important and cannot be overdone. The more confidence your child acquires, the less anxiety he will have.
If despite your efforts your child does not excel in the social scene at school, all is not lost. If you have been persistent in teaching and modeling the basic social skills necessary for creating relationships throughout his or her school experience your child will have a much better chance of social success in adulthood, when one can choose the social situations they are most comfortable with.
Mastering the social environment is a lifelong process, and none of us, even as adults ever perfect the skill of developing and maintaining friendships completely. So be persistent, think positive, and have patience with your child and yourself.
For more strategies to make school a more positive experience for your child with autism click here to learn more about the book AUTISM PARENTING: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience – Over 300 tips for parents to enhance their child’s school success.