Helping Your Child Overcome Social Anxiety

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Many children with developmental disorders often feel uncomfortable and out of place, which can cause extreme social anxiety. Anxiety can affect a child’s academic performance, friendships, emotional state, and even his physical health. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help.

Plan ahead. It’s almost impossible to learn anything when you’re scared and anxious, and that’s certainly true for children with developmental disorders. Trying to coach your child on social behavior when you’re in the car on the way to an event wouldn’t be very helpful. Instead, start well in advance, and pick a time when your child is relaxed and happy, so that he’ll be better able to absorb the lesson.

Set the stage. Due to their social deficits, children with developmental disorders can’t visualize what is likely to happen in a given situation. You can help by giving a realistic preview: what the event is for, who will be there, what they’ll be doing, and what the proper behavior is. Stick to concrete terms your child will understand. For instance, instead of saying, “Sally will be really excited because it’s her birthday,” focus on the facts: “People will sing happy birthday and eat cake and ice cream. Then Sally will open her presents while you and the other guests watch.”

Role play various scenarios with your child: knocking on the door, greeting the host, offering a gift, etc. Knowing what to do will reduce your child’s anxiety and lay the groundwork for a successful experience.

Work through some “what ifs.” You don’t want to increase your child’s anxiety by giving him new things to worry about, but you do want him to be able to adapt if things don’t go exactly as you practiced. “What if Sally’s older brother is the one who opens the door?” “What if no one offers to take the gift?” “What if they play a game you don’t know how to play?”

The important thing to remember is that children with developmental disorders often don’t understand the social behaviors that are second nature to us. It’s similar to the idea of teaching someone how to breathe. How would you describe the first step? How would you demonstrate? You’d have to take something you’ve been doing your whole life without even thinking about it, then break it down into components you can teach – and that’s exactly what you need to do when it comes to helping your child cope with social anxiety.