For most children, making new friends and other social activities can be a bit stressful and scary at times. For kids with social anxiety disorder, these “normal” parts of growing up can be extremely difficult, even debilitating. Recent research (from Washington University in St. Louis) suggests that people with social anxiety disorder, known as SAD, have the perception that they are incapable of making friends or that the friendships they have are not of the highest quality. The problem with this perception is that it’s not necessarily true from their friends’ perspective. The November 2014 study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, finds that people with SAD often overestimate how bad their relationships are with friends, when compared to what the friends say.
Shy and Socially Anxious Are Different
Let’s back up a bit and discuss SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 15 million Americans suffer from the disorder, equally distributed between men and women. SAD often originates in childhood or early adolescence, with the median age of onset being 13-years-of-age. Sometimes children with SAD are categorized as extremely shy, but shyness and social anxiety are very different. Shy children may feel uncomfortable at times around others, but they don’t experience the extreme fear and anxiety that kids with SAD experience in social situations. Interestingly enough, most people with SAD recognize that their fears are actually disproportionate and irrational at times, and just need a little bit of help to be able to overcome them.
Fear of Judgment
Children with SAD may struggle to form friendships because they feel overwhelming anxiety in certain social situations and fear scrutiny and judgment from others, which causes them to avoid them altogether. An article in Child Psychiatry and Human Development stresses the importance of social engagement for the development of appropriate interpersonal behavior and friendships. According to the article, having a best friend not only increases feelings of support, enhances coping skills, and protects against negative treatment from peers, but also enriches a child’s overall social and emotional functioning. Kids who struggle to make friends or have difficulties with their peers may have limited social opportunities in general, and this may continue into later childhood, adolescence and adulthood in the absence of any intervention efforts. In this article’s study, for example, elementary school children identified as withdrawn by peers tended to remain in this same classification when reassessed three years later.
This same study mirrors the first article’s findings about perception, noting that anxious children as a group had lower levels of self-perceived social competence, often worrying about and setting exceedingly high standards for their competence in and the quality of peer relationships.
What You Can Do
If you think your child is suffering from SAD, and is struggling socially to build and maintain friendships because she thinks she isn’t capable of doing so, or because she perceives she is bad at it, you can help her through encouragement and practicing her skills in this area. One of the best tools you can use to help her work on social skills is through role-playing. Choose a realistic scenario to practice (For younger kids, this may be asking someone to play at recess. For older kids, this may be practicing asking someone to come over to study). Have your child pretend to be the friend and then you model the behavior the child should exhibit, such as smiling and saying hello with confidence. Once you’ve practiced that a few times, and maybe a couple other scenarios, switch roles with your child. Have her pretend she’s asking you to play or to come over to study. Encourage her hard work, being sure to praise specifically what she did well. If she needs to improve on some things, encourage some areas she could focus on for next time. Practice role-playing until your child feels she is confident in her skills.
Along with role-playing, you could also try creating some “friendship goals” with your child. A “friendship goal” is something she can work towards that will help her chances of making new friends. You could start with something small and increase each goal, one at a time. Some examples of these goals include: saying “hi” to a classmate, asking to play with another child (before recess begins), asking to borrow something from a classmate, sharing a treat or snack with another child, asking to join in a game, asking a friend over to play, and phoning another student.
Additionally, you can encourage all sorts of extra-curricular activities, including organized clubs, lessons, or sports, which are all great opportunities for your child to meet other kids and form friendships. Try to set up regular play dates by asking your child who she would like to invite over and nurturing a friendship through an activity both children enjoy. Make your home fun and welcoming for other children and help put your child at ease by role-playing beforehand. Be mindful not to make your child feel like she is being forced to make friends or add any extra pressure to her plate.
Perception is Key
Your child’s perception of her abilities to make friendships is the key. With continued practice and patience, you can help your child build the confidence she needs to think about her fears and her friendship-making skills more realistically, conquer negative thought patterns that trigger her anxiety, and confront other stressful situations with more self-assurance.
Anxiety BC. “Helping your anxious child make friends.” Retrieved on January 6, 2015 from http://www.anxietybc.com/parenting/helping-your-anxious-child-make-friends
Presta, R. “Social Anxiety and Helping Children with Anxiety Make Friends.” Retrieved on January 6, 2015 from http://anxietyfreechild.com/child-social-anxiety/
Scharfstein, L., Alfano, C., Beidel, D., & Wong, N. (2011). “Children with generalized anxiety disorder do not have peer problems, just fewer friends.” Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 42(6), 712-723.
Washington University in St. Louis. (2014, November 12). Hope for those with social anxiety disorder: You may already be someone’s best friend. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 7, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141112144835.htm