From now through the end of the year, family gatherings are plentiful. First there’s Thanksgiving, then winter holidays like Christmas and then New Year’s, each with their own special family event. While many revel in the delights of so many get-togethers, but for kids with social anxiety, all of the excitement can be overwhelming.
If your child has trouble when attending social events large or small, your child may have social anxiety. Even children who don’t have social anxiety may struggle to enjoy all of the season’s social events. The noise, excitement, large number of people and many expectations can weigh on even the most well-adjusted kids. Luckily, with some foresight, you can ensure that your child is still able to enjoy a good time at this season’s family gatherings.
Before we get to the measures you can take to help your child, let’s make sure you know what signs to look for to identify social anxiety.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Everyone experiences some amount of anxiety. It’s the natural response to stress. However, anxiety becomes problematic when it rises beyond healthy levels and invades your every thought. Social anxiety is specific to social situations, especially involving meeting new people.
Children may be especially averse to meeting new people or worry intensely about saying the wrong thing or what other people will think of them. Some other signs of social anxiety include avoiding social situations altogether or complaining of stomach aches in order to get out of attending social events like parties or even school. Children who experience social anxiety may go as far as to avoid eye contact, mumble or speak very quietly when speaking with others. On the other hand, your child may even throw a tantrum to avoid meeting new people. While some social awkwardness and anxiety about new people can be natural in children, social anxiety takes this to a whole new level.
So, what can you do about it? Here are some strategies that can help you socially anxious or shy child manage family gatherings:
- Adjust Expectations
If you expect your child to step right up to all of their aunts, uncles and grandparents to say “Good afternoon” and then engage in a pleasant conversation, maybe it’s time to dial it back. Give your child the option to simply smile and wave or give a high five and be done. Don’t force any interactions. You can encourage your child to greet relatives, but avoid forcing your child to “just say hi” or “give just one hug”.
- Prepare Ahead of Time
You can help your child by preparing them for the family gathering ahead of time. For example, you could tell your child where the event will be, who will be there and what activities may take place. This will help your child prepare themselves mentally since they’ll know what to expect. You may even go as far to do role playing situations that may come up. For example, greeting relatives, asking for food politely at the table, how to say “no” to a pushy cousin, etc.
Not sure you’ll remember to have this conversation? Add it to your Picniic calendar a few days ahead of your gathering.
- Find A Buddy
Encourage your child to navigate the family gathering with a buddy. Whether they pair up with a sibling, stick to you or find a friend in a cousin, aunt or uncle, the support of a friendly face can be powerful.
- Use a Coping Mechanism
There are many coping mechanisms that your child can use when facing an overwhelming social situation. Here are a few strategies you might work on with your child. It’s important to mention that you should practice these ahead of time. These coping mechanisms only really work if your child knows about them ahead of time:
- Contracting and Releasing Muscles: This strategy is known to help calm a racing mind and ground the person who’s feeling anxious. Show your child how to make a fist and count to five, holding the muscles tight and then release for ten seconds. Repeat.
- Silly Putty: Similar to relaxing and contracting muscles, silly putty offers a tool for relieving stress. If your child feels worried, they can play with calming silly putty, playdough, slime, or something similar.
- Deep Breathing: Encourage your child to take a few deep breaths when feeling anxious to help them calm down.
- A Break: Another great way to keep calm is to take a break in a quiet room. Identify a room that they might use to take a break at the family gathering. Or, encourage your child to make a secret signal (a wink, the peace sign, etc.) with you to indicate that they need a break. In absence of a safe room, you can always take your child to the car or outdoors for a quick break.
- Be A Good Example
Finally, be a good example. If family gatherings stress you out, you may be inadvertently communicating this to your child. Try to avoid talking negatively about the visit. Instead, show your child how to effectively use coping mechanisms and do your best to navigate the situation in the way that you hope your child will someday. Remember, we are constantly on display as models for our children. While it’s ok to mess up and struggle, our goal should always be to show desired behavior to our children with our example.
With the above strategies, you can enjoy calmer family gatherings. Slowly, with patience, your child can learn to use the coping mechanisms more and more effectively, making social situations ever easier to navigate.
Do you have strategies that help your child with social anxiety? Tell us about your ideas in the comments below.