How to Help Kids Cope With Social Anxiety When Social Distancing Ends

Is your child nervous about returning to social situations?

For many kids and adolescents (and their parents!) one of the toughest aspects of the pandemic has been not seeing friends in person. Luckily, many schools now offer more in-person learning, COVID-19 vaccines are available for anyone 12 or older, and warmer weather is allowing for more outdoor activities. Although it will still be several months before all children have the ability to be vaccinated, and masks and social distancing remain in place in some settings, a return to normal social interaction is starting to be within sight!

As exciting as this is for many kids, there are plenty of others who might be hesitant about a return to pre-pandemic social pressures.

Connecticut Children’s pediatric psychologist Timothy W. LaVigne, PhD, shares tips to help kids cope with anticipatory social anxiety.

 

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 1. Acknowledge that new situations can be scary.

Remember what it felt like to be the new kid at school, get assigned to an elementary school classroom with none of your friends, or show up at a party where you didn’t know anyone but the host?

Some people can dive right into those situations and thrive right away! But other kids need time to get used to a new situation. That’s perfectly normal.

For almost every kid in the world, they are beginning to re-enter social situations they haven’t been in for over a year. For all of us, doing something new – or even something we haven’t done for awhile – can be a bit scary.

> Related: Resources for Your Family’s “Next Normal” During COVID-19

Mother picks up young daughter and gives her a hug

2. Talk to your kids about how they feel.

If you notice that your child is nervous or hesitant to jump back into social situations, talk to them about it!

  • First, make sure you validate how they’re feeling. Many kids feel shy in new settings – and re-engaging in post-pandemic socialization is certainly a new setting. Reassure them that it is normal to feel worried or scared at times, while also explaining that with time what feels scary now will feel normal later.
  • If possible, talk about other times they were able to do something successfully that they were initially worried about – like going on a roller coaster, trying a new sport or extracurricular activity, or even the first day of a new school year.

> Related: 10 Quick Tips to Help Your Child Reset From Stress

3. Help your child put themselves out there.

Repeated exposure to a feared stimulus is one of the best ways to decrease anxiety. In kid-friendly terms, this means that doing something scary – especially several times – helps your child feel less scared the next time they tackle the same situation.

  • It’s helpful to start small and build – so maybe suggest that your child start by getting together with just one friend before joining an entirely new soccer team, or introduce themselves to a classmate before trying to have a full conversation.
  • The anticipation before a new activity can often be the hardest part, so make sure you schedule these activities in the not-too-distant future (in accordance with current COVID-19 safety guidelines). This way your child can engage in the activity and then build on that success as opposed to simply wondering – and worrying – about when it will happen.
  • Remember to praise your child after they complete the activity so they know how proud you are! (Just make sure you change your praise based on your child’s age – a big hug might be great for an elementary school student whereas a simple “nice job” might be more appropriate for your teen.)

> Related: Which Activities Are Risky When Kids Aren’t Vaccinated Yet?

4. Remember that it’s OK to spend some time alone.

School-age boy reads while sitting on the couch

As excited as you might be to set up play dates and watch your child hang out with other kids again, remember that solo time is not only OK, but healthy!

This can be a time for creativity, exploring new hobbies, and mastering existing ones. Plus, it can also help kids know that they are capable of entertaining themselves.

Every child and family will have a different balance of social time and alone time – especially as we continue to get closer and closer to post-pandemic times.

 

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