By: Dr. Donna Pincus

With summer approaching and the school year coming to a close, children now have the opportunity to engage in summer activities such as day camp, extra play dates with friends, overnight camp, movies, cookouts, and all of the other activities that come along with the end of school. However, while these activities are fun for most children, some children find it difficult to socialize with others due to their social fears. These fears can be extremely interfering in their lives, and prevent them from engaging in developmentally appropriate activities.

What is social phobia and how do I know if my child is currently experiencing it?
Social phobia is an intense fear of becoming humiliated or embarrassed in social situations. It often begins around early adolescence, but it can begin at even younger ages. Children who suffer from social phobia might appear to be excessively shy and may fear that they will do or say something in front of others that will promote embarrassment. Some children and adolescents believe that others are more competent than they are. Common fears of children/adolescents with social phobia are fears of public speaking, fears of going to social situations such as parties, fears of talking with authority figures such as teacher or a principal, fears of speaking to others in public. Other less common fears may involve fears of using a public restroom, fears of eating out, ordering food by themselves, talking on the phone, or fears of writing on the chalkboard in front of other peers. Social phobia is different from shyness. People with shyness can be uneasy around others, but they don't necessarily avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Social phobia disrupts a child's normal life, interfering with school or social relationships. Often, children with social phobia begin to avoid and fear social events, and this can cause significant interference in children's normal development and overall quality of life. A key complaint issued by many youngsters is a fear of appearing foolish or doing something that would invite ridicule from others.

What can parents do to assist children in expanding their social circle?
If your child is experiencing social phobia that is interfering in his or her life, treatment is likely warranted from a psychologist. However, what if a child is simply shy, but not socially phobic? Many parents report that they simply wish it were easier for their child to make friends, and that they wish that their child were less shy or inhibited in social situations. Here are some tips for parents about ways to help children expand their social circles, and ways to help children feel more comfortable in social situations:

1.) Make Time for Friends: Be sure that the child's schedule is not booked so heavily that there is not any time for friends. Some families schedule children in so many "organized activities", such as many different sports or dance classes that there is not enough time for children to have downtime and unstructured playtime with others. Be sure that your child has some free time to be able to schedule fun times with new friends.

2.) Encourage Play Dates: Encourage your child to set up "play dates" with other kids. Before your child leaves school for the summer vacation, encourage him or her to get a list of all their classmates' phone numbers. You might give your child a special address book or special small notebook where their classmates can sign in their name and phone number. During those summer days when there are no activities scheduled, your child can refer back to the list of school friends' numbers to invite a friend over to play.

3.) Role Play Simple Social Situations with Your Child as Practice: Some kids refuse to get on the phone due to fears that they will not know what to say. Role play situations with your child. For example, a child could be taught to say, "It would be great if you could come over to my house sometime next week! Do you want to get together for hanging out, playing, going swimming, or having dinner one night at my house?"

4.) Normalize Natural Fears: Let your child know that it is perfectly normal to feel a little hesitant about speaking for the first time to new people. Also, it is natural to feel nervous about giving an oral report to the class, or talking with someone on the phone. This anxiety is normal, and it will go away the more that the child practices the situations that they are most anxious about.

5.) Dealing with Overnights/Sleepovers: Typically, at around age 7 or 8, many children enjoy sleepovers as a special activity with friends. However, some kids report feeling afraid of going to others' homes for sleepovers. Some may feel this way due to social fears or due to fears of separating from a caregiver. You might start to help kids feel more comfortable by encouraging sleepovers at a relative's house, such as a similar aged cousin, or at a grandparent's house. Children should be encouraged to talk about their specific fears about sleepovers so that parents can help them deal with each of these fears directly. Also, parents might encourage their child to invite kids to their house first for a sleepover so that the child can become used to the activity.

6.) Encourage Your Child to Develop a Hobby: Sports, dance, boy/girl scouts, and other clubs are excellent places for children to meet other children with similar interests. Engage your child in a discussion of his or her interests and help your child join a club to develop a hobby, such as dance, art, model building, karate, etc..

7.) Host a Get-Together: Host a neighborhood cookout, host a playgroup with moms, dads, and children, join a parent/child music group, etc. All of these ideas are ways to help children practice being around other children and other adults.

8.) Praise Children's Successes in Social Situations: Tell your child how proud you are of their specific successes. Let them know that you enjoy watching them have so much fun with friends. Praise their successes in trying new things, such as making a phone call to order food for the first time, or ordering for themselves in a restaurant for the first time. Tell children exactly what you like about their behavior, and you will likely see this behavior increase.

9.) Help Children Learn the Skill of Relaxation: Often, when children have a skill to help them relax before entering a feared situation, they are better able to enter that situation and are less likely to avoid it. The creators of the Child Anxiety Network have developed a relaxation CD for children to help them learn the skill of progressive muscle relaxation using positive imagery. Using this CD, children can learn to relax themselves in numerous situations that cause them fear.

CLICK HERE! To find out more about the
I Can Relax! Relaxation CD for Children

What if my child needs treatment for social phobia?
Treatment components include teaching appropriate social skills to children who lack knowledge of social situations and appropriate social behaviors. Children and adolescents are also taught to identify and change anxious thoughts that serve to increase feelings of anxiety in social situations. By thinking more positive, rational thoughts, children are typically able to enter social situations more easily. Cognitive therapy techniques help children to reduce distortions in their thinking. Social performance is assumed to be disrupted by worrisome thoughts and negative self-evaluations that draw attention away from the cues that guide appropriate social behavior. Children and adolescents are also guided in developing a list of situations that are challenging for them, such as attending a party, talking on the phone, or talking to a friend. Children are taught to implement their coping skills while gradually facing each of these situations. Children's successes are praised highly by the therapist and by parents. Therapists also use modeling techniques, where appropriate social interaction skills are first demonstrated by the therapist and then practiced with the child or adolescent. Recent research has supported the inclusion of parents in some treatment sessions, so that they can be educated about the nature of anxiety and the development, maintenance, and treatment of social phobia. They are also instructed regarding their role as "coaches" who facilitate their child's or adolescent's application of their new skills between sessions. Group treatment is often employed to treat social phobia, as it provides chances for interaction with peers.

Copyright © 2001 The Child Anxiety Network. All Rights Reserved.
Sponsored by Psychzone Inc.


Coping Cards