Trouble with Friends
Social difficulties can plague children with anxiety for a number of reasons. Anxious children may shy away from social interaction because of their fear of failure. They may feel alienated from or rejected by their peers, and these feelings may or may not be an accurate assessment of the reality of the situation. Your empathy and understanding of your child's frustrations, along with your persistent and gentle encouragement, can go a long way to improving your child's social experiences. It is important for parents of children with anxiety not to minimize the enormous power social frustration and discomfort play in a child's developing sense of independence and self-esteem. Middle school (grades six through eight) can be a particularly difficult time for children as they navigate through puberty and the resulting new social and emotional demands.
No One Wants to Play with Me
Because children with anxiety are often shy and quiet compared to their more outgoing peers, they may have difficulty initiating social interaction or including themselves in a situation where other children are already involved in an activity. Your child may end up feeling that she is unwanted. Conversely, as you have already learned, peers can reject children with anxiety when their behavior is seen as immature, disruptive, or odd. Start by talking with your child about her fears, and encourage her by modeling ways to interact more effectively. You might say, “Why don't you try telling Susie that you would like to run through the sprinkler with her? Maybe you could bring popsicles over to share with her, you make the call and I will walk you over.”
Anxious children create mental mountains, which prevent them from the opportunity to have new and enjoyable experiences with their peers. Older children may compare themselves negatively to others, and may feel they have little or nothing of value to offer as a friend. Younger children may simply feel restless or uneasy around peers for reasons they are not yet able to identify.
Your child may fear doing things other more gregarious children do, such as sports, videogames, or sleepovers. To help your child overcome this roadblock, encourage and reward baby steps. You can also play a game or sport with your child to help increase confidence and ability and lessen fears.
Take the time to help your child introduce himself to other children in the neighborhood, or ask him to invite a classmate over to share in something he is interested in or does well. Don't forget to ask the teacher for a class list to help your child get started making new friends at school.
They Make Fun of Me
Younger children may lack social tact, and refer to your anxious child as a “crybaby” or “fraidy-cat.” Unfortunately, the aftermath of repeated teasing can be serious, even leading to symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder if the teasing is especially brutal, sadistic, or widespread. Be as supportive as possible if your child complains of teasing, and try to “check out the facts” whenever possible. With younger children, you may be able to intervene by increasing supervision, talking with the other parents involved, or limiting contact with specific friends. With older children, it may be necessary to speak to school personnel or neighborhood parents about your concerns, or assist your child in working out an assertive solution. Keep in mind that if this intervention is not handled delicately, it may backfire and lead to increased ostracism. In extreme cases, when a pattern of teasing or alienation cannot be broken, it may be necessary to move your child to another school.