Social anxiety in children

As we emerge out of lockdown, some children are feeling out of practise in their social skills. Some are anxious or fearful of those around.

Has your teenager come home having forgotten how to have conversations? Is your child, having previously been excited about friendships, now unsure of how to navigate them? Or has your pre-schooler become fearful around other people? If so, it’s not surprising. We have all been socially deprived over this last year and, for some of our children, the lockdown has persisted over a significant period of their own lifetime. Reactions to emerging out of lockdown can range from ecstasy to agony. Struggles in engaging in wider social relationships can span a spectrum: from feeling shy and a little restrained, to a debilitating fear.

Being a Christian doesn’t prevent us from struggling socially, but our Lord does promise to be an ever-present help in our times of trouble (Psalm 46:1). Here are some things we can do to help our children who are finding social interaction hard.

Help them walk faithfully

It’s important to encourage our children not to let their awkwardness, shyness, or anxiety prevent them from engaging in social situations. We can inadvertently shrink their world and their faith if, every time they feel anxious, we protect them from the thing that is causing their fear. Instead, encourage children to move, in little steps, towards others. This is an opportunity for their faith to go beyond abstract truth, towards a courageous trusting of their Saviour who promises to help and carry them (Psalm 28:6-9). We want to encourage them wisely and safely. It may be tempting for us to want them to jump in at the deep end, but trusting God in times of anxiety takes practice and is less automatic than we might think. Often, the ways of God involve gradual growth, one step at a time, in meaningful trust and confidence in him. We might want all anxieties to be immediately extinguished, but God’s wisdom is typically slower and wiser: otherwise, we would turn to him less, which would be to our detriment.

Help them handle their emotions

Expect emotions, and lots of them: anxiety, sadness, shame and possibly anger. Being told ‘you’ll be okay’, and ‘it’s not that difficult’ is often unhelpful, and is perhaps a way we avoid handling those difficult emotions ourselves. Shame, sadness, anger and fear of others, are deeply uncomfortable emotions and, for some, it will take enormous courage to take steps towards others. The Lord can and does actively meet them in their distress, and he can do that through you (2 Cor 1:3-6). The more our children can learn to experience their difficult emotions and ask the Lord to strengthen and comfort them amid their struggles, the more they will grow in courage to face their fears and trust God and others. See the blog post When children are anxious on ways to help in these steps.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but choosing to live for something more important in the fear

It may simply be that our children are out of practice, after lockdowns, but it could be that their own sense of inadequacy, shame or vulnerability is driving their fear of others. What will happen if there is awkward silence, or conversation fades to nothing? What will people think of me? Will they accept me? Will they hurt me? Sadly, for some children, these are real questions. Some have been hurt and neglected, and they have very real reasons to be afraid. These desires to be affirmed by others reflect a greater, deeper desire to be affirmed by our Heavenly Father (John 12:43, Rom 2:29). Jesus treasured his Heavenly Father’s opinion of him, enabling him to tolerate other’s opinions of him and the shame of the cross (Matt 17:1-12, Matt 27:36-37). He was not unaffected by shame or fear, but his Father’s perfect love and evaluations enabled him to scorn the shame of the cross and cast out all fear. He knew there was something more powerful, bigger and better to come (Heb 12:2). In Christ, our children are already affirmed, accepted, precious in his sight and counted as one of his own (1 John 3:1-3). This helps grow a confidence in Christ that allows them to be secure in him, become more like him, have courage to move towards others and love them as he does. Help them be curious about others, rather than conscious of themselves. How can they make others feel at ease? How can they listen to and be interested in their friend? What would their friend like to do or talk about?

Change the goals and let go of perfection

It’s impossible to perform perfectly in all social situations. Embarrassments, awkward silences, a wrong word spoken are all inevitable. Ultimately, social situations are not about performance or being the life of the party, constantly engaging and never lost for a word, but about loving our neighbour and becoming more like Jesus in the way we love them. Growth involves messing up. Help our children let go of comparisons and building their worth on the evaluation of others and their performance. They will inevitably fail those standards. Instead, make goals about growth in Jesus and loving others. He won’t fail them (1 John 3: 1-6). We, too, may need to let go of looking perfect or never messing up. Perhaps share around the dinner table a mistake we’ve made and talk about how mistakes enable us to grow and learn.

No matter how much our children push us to allow their struggle to define how they view themselves, others and the world, we know that their identity is ultimately shaped by their relationship with God. God created them, and gives them particular strengths and weaknesses. He calls them by name, knows their heart, thoughts, ways and experiences. Wonderfully, he promises that it is possible to endure difficulties: even a child can run the race, faithfully engaging with others, while looking to Jesus and his love and evaluation as their guide.