The Basics of Social Anxiety In Primary-Age Children

The Basics of Social Anxiety In Primary-Age Children

Takeaway: Social anxiety in primary-age children is affected by their genes, life experiences, and self-image. But parents can help children overcome these anxieties by using a positive parenting style.

Social anxiety is a fear of being in social situations.

Primary-age children have to find a place in the complex network of groups and cliques at school. This new social life can be intimidating because there are many new ‘rules’ to follow. Rules about what to say and when, how to dress, who to talk to, and more. So, young children often get anxious about mistakenly breaking these rules and being judged or laughed at for the mistake. For some, this fear of humiliation is relatively mild – something they can work through easily. But for others, it builds into a full-fledged social phobia or social anxiety disorder. Also, with some children, this anxiety is connected to specific situations (e.g., reading aloud in class), while for others, it’s more generalised – affecting every aspect of their social lives.

Whatever the type of social anxiety, it’ll have the same core characteristics.

However mild/intense or localised/generalised a child’s social anxiety, she’ll experience the same challenge. I.e., she’ll struggle to cope with her anxieties and worries. Since she’s constantly afraid of being judged or laughed at, she’ll likely try to avoid social situations altogether – for example, skipping school and/or hangouts with friends. And if she can’t avoid them, she’ll feel paralysed by extreme feelings of distress and emotional discomfort. Distress and discomfort that’s intense, persistent, and overwhelming – with physical symptoms like sweating, blushing, difficulty breathing, a rapid heart rate, etc.

The thing about social anxiety in young children is that it’s hard to detect.

As adults we can sometimes tend to dismiss young children’s fears as trivial. And it’s easy to do this because anxiety is an inner experience, often with no outward signs. But a primary-age child’s inner world is complex and nuanced, and she can sometimes have an anxiety disorder, the same as adults. Even if her fears seem trivial e.g., “There’s a monster under my bed!”), they’re caused by the same biological mechanism triggering ‘grown-up’ social fears. So, we need to look out for social anxiety warning signs in our children. For instance, do they refuse to go to school? Or try to avoid notice (e.g., not making eye contact or speaking very softly)? Or dislike eating in public?

So, why this fear of social situations? Well, there are four ways of explaining it.

Primary-age children develop social anxieties for various reasons. For instance, they might not yet have the social skills to ‘fit in’ properly. Or they might have low self-confidence. Alternatively, a past trauma (e.g., being bullied) might have put them off socialising. Or they might be genetically programmed to be shy and cautious – making them anxious about new situations by default. (You see this in how some children cling to their mothers when meeting strangers, while others happily toddle over to say ‘hi.’)

Interestingly, the family can play a major role in increasing or decreasing social anxiety.

Parent-child bonds affect how children approach the unknown. A child who feels safe and loved by her parents is likely to see the world as a safe and loving place – making her more independent, trusting, and confident in tough situations. Meanwhile, if she doesn’t have that secure parent-child bond, she’s more likely to feel unsafe, afraid, and judge her mistakes harshly – all traits that lower her resilience in tough times. Further, children copy adult behaviour, so socially anxious parents could unwittingly transfer their fears to their children.

That’s why it’s worth exploring a more encouraging, confidence-building parenting style.

We parents can nudge our children towards being more adventurous, confident, and social – regardless of their personality type. That’s because socialising and facing social fears are skills we can develop and improve. So, if we give our children specific strategies to deal with anxiety-provoking social situations, they’ll feel better equipped and calmer. The trick is to develop a positive parenting style. This means encouraging children to explore, experiment, and follow their passions – all while being on standby to guide and help where needed. The idea is to talk them through their challenges without stepping in and taking over, and this type of open communication helps children feel secure but independent. So, you want to encourage new skills rather than criticise mistakes. And try to suggest solutions rather than focus on obstacles. Finally, let your child make mistakes and learn rather than micromanage her every move. This last point is particularly important because research shows that controlling and over-involved parents make their children feel inadequate. After all, if your mother or father hovers over everything you do, then maybe that means you don’t know how to do things ‘right.’ And if you can’t do things right, surely you’ll not fit in social situations?

Of course, understanding these social anxiety basics is just the start. You’ll also need specific suggestions for your child’s unique needs.

There’s often more to helping children with social anxiety than just tweaking your parenting style. So, feel free to contact us for support and guidance about solutions for your child’s particular needs. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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