No one can separate school and children. School is an indispensable part of every child’s life, so parents feel immense pressure to help their children succeed academically. They are so engaged in helping their children cope with the education rat race that they neglect their social development. Children can be socially anxious. But what causes social anxiety in children, and how should parents help them to manage it?

Defining Social Anxiety

Social anxiety develops in social situations, mainly if they are tense or awkward. It is an umbrella definition that encapsulates mood, autism, eating, and substance use disorders.

A person with social anxiety will find it difficult to look directly at others. They would also show fewer facial expressions and will not initiate or maintain a conversation. Statistics show that about 90% of women are socially anxious. In extreme situations, the fear is so debilitating that affected people cannot perform their daily functions.

If adults have social concerns, children can have them too. Recent research reveals that about 1 in 20 American children and teens need help to overcome various forms of anxiety.

As with adults, genetic, environmental, biological, and societal factors contribute to social anxiety in children. Young ones may learn the behaviour as well. We explore each of these causes below.

What Causes Social Anxiety in Children?

1. Genetic

According to research, children with relatives who have developed social anxiety disorder are 2-6 times more likely than their friends to build it. We can attribute about a third of a person’s SAD to genetics. Researchers have yet to find a particular genetic makeup linked to SAD, but they have discovered chromosomes connected with other disorders.

2. Environmental

Environmental disorders can influence children. If their parents have SAD, they are likely to learn its associated behaviours and develop it themselves, as research shows.

Many children learn social anxiety through direct conditioning. They acquire fears of bullies or speaking in public because their peers made fun of or humiliated them. These kids observe and learn behaviour.

Parents unwittingly transfer information about social fears to their children. If a mother fears what others may say about her weight, she passes that fear to her young ones. A lack of social exposure can cause SAD, as well.

3. Behavioural Inhibition

You may know of children who become extremely edgy when encountering someone new. They may inhibit social behaviour in specific situations, e.g. when someone speaks to them in harsh tones. Kids who seek the comfort of their parents for a litany of reasons are likely to develop SAD later in life, as revealed by this study.

4. Societal

Some children develop SAD because they grow up in a collectivist culture. The Japanese have come up with the term Taijin Kyofusho, which refers to a person’s fear of not being able to conform to the norms of a group. Fear of deviating from expected behaviour can cause social anxiety.

5. Brain Structure

Researchers have studied the human brain to find out if there are differences in brain flow between people with SAD and those without it. They discovered that those with SAD tend to have increased blood flow to the amygdala.

How to Help Children with Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is debilitating because it prevents a person from cultivating a growth mindset. It makes them afraid to take risks or try anything new. Low self-esteem makes a child afraid to fail or make mistakes. They may also feel worried about disappointing others.

1. Connect with your child

The PACE method helps socially anxious children release their worries about social situations. PACE stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. Manifesting these behaviours helps a child understand that you are calm, relaxed, and in control. They will be more open to you helping them.

Playfulness demonstrates to a child that you are relaxed and open. If a child says, “I don’t want to play with my dolls anymore. I’d rather play with you,” you say, “I want to play with you too.”

Accepting children’s behaviour shows them that they can come to you with no fear of being ignored or judged. They will feel better equipped to cope with other anxieties.

Curiosity helps you elicit the reason for your children’s behaviour. Children will eventually tell you what they’re anxious about because the interest demonstrates concern. Empathy shows children that you understand their needs. It helps them to feel connected to you.

In all, the PACE model helps children feel a sense of connection, a factor that helps children cope with the causes of social anxiety.

2. Education

Your socially anxious children should know what they’re going through, and you are the best person to explain things to them. Tell them that anxiety isn’t bad in itself. It happens to keep people safe. Unlike animals, we don’t have to deal with immediate stressors, such as evading predators. That’s all well and good, but it gives us time for long-term worries such as how to say hello to friends.

3. Make preparations

If you know that your children suffer from social anxiety, isolate its causes. Get them ready for situations when it is likely to occur. Let them know what will happen in specific scenarios and how to respond.

For example, if you know that your children become anxious when Aunt Beth comes to visit, teach them how she’s likely to behave and most importantly, how to respond to her. You can role-play the scenarios or read to your children. Do anything to increase their comfort levels.

4. Focus on progress

Don’t expect your child to be perfect if you aren’t always so yourself. Perfectionism instils fear in children, especially those who have social phobia. Remind your children about the progress they have made. Let them know that everyone makes mistakes and that nothing should stop them from reaching their goals.

5. Learn when to pull back and when to let go

At times, getting worried yourself only makes your socially anxious children tenser than before. Leave them be but stay close if they need you. If necessary, remove them from the situation to help them with their coping skills before letting them get back into it.

6. Teach coping skills

Another way to manage social anxiety in children is to educate them. Let your children learn a variety of coping mechanisms. For example, teach them to utilise calm breathing. It slows their sympathetic nervous systems and tells them that they don’t have to use the fight or flight response.

Get them to come to five as they breathe in in another five as they breathe out. Doing this helps them to get in touch with their surroundings.

7. Permit children to worry

Give your children some time to worry when they encounter situations that trigger social anxiety. Doing this doesn’t mean giving your child permission not to deal with their fears. Instead, give your children time to think of a solution to their worries. Talk to them about how they can deal with the worst-case scenarios.

Dealing with the causes of social anxiety in children can be tricky, but consistency and sincerity on your part will help you make breakthroughs.

Michelle Liew, B.A.

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