Does my Toddler Have Social Anxiety?
In a nutshell, social anxiety is the fear of interacting with other people. According to the Victoria State Government’s Better Health Channel, more than 1 in 10 (13 percent) Australians will develop social anxiety at some point in their lives, with about 3 percent experiencing the disorder in any given year.
While the onset of social anxiety typically starts during adolescence, it’s important to note that it can manifest itself in people of any age – including toddlers. There is, of course, a difference between social anxiety and the usual shyness that most little ones go through at about the 18-month to two-year mark. For parents, the challenge lies in identifying whether their child is exhibiting signs of social anxiety or is simply going through the stages of regular shyness.
Do you think your toddler might be developing social anxiety? Read on to learn more about the warning signs of this common disorder and find out what you can do as a parent to fortify your child’s confidence in social situations.
Understanding the spectrum of social fear
As with just about every other personality trait, there’s a fairly wide spectrum of what can be considered ‘normal’ behaviour in terms of a toddler’s social abilities.
Some are utterly fearless and are able to seamlessly interact with strangers as easily as they can with members of their family.
Others are a little more cautious and might take some time to gauge an unfamiliar face before warming to them and revealing more of their personality. In most cases, this probably isn’t social anxiety so much as regular toddler shyness.
Some kids will feel extreme fear and anxiety when exposed to social situations in which they are required to interact with, or perform in front of strangers. These feelings might be expressed through crying, tantrums, intense clinging to parents, refusal to participate in group activities and more.
What causes social anxiety in toddlers?
The brain is a complicated thing and, as with any mental health condition, it’s difficult to pinpoint with any certainty a single factor that may cause social anxiety in toddlers. The general consensus is that it is probably the result of complex environmental and genetic interactions.
According to Mayo Clinic, some of the contributing factors may include:
- Inherited traits: Anxiety conditions are often passed down through families, though the jury is still out on whether this is due to genetics or learned behaviour.
- Brain Structure: Deep in the brain is a set of neurons known as the amygdala, which affects our response to fear. People with an overactive amygdala may experience a heightened sense of social anxiety.
- Environment: It’s possible that social anxiety is a learned behaviour that toddlers pick up from observing the interactions and responses of people around them.
What are some signs that my toddler may have social anxiety?
It’s good to encourage a healthy level of caution in our kids, particularly when it comes to interacting with strangers. However, when does this sense of care and awareness stop being a responsible character trait and become a disorder?
Well, seeing as we’re all unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question and one child’s symptoms may simply not be the same as another’s. Nevertheless, there are a few behavioural traits to keep an eye out for:
Shy and withdrawn: Your child is very uncomfortable when interacting with both adults and kids, even if they’ve known them for a long time.
- Difficulty integrating: Your child refuses to play with other children or join in group activities.
- Cries in social settings: Your child cries intensely and/or throws a tantrum when meeting new people or being forced into unfamiliar social interactions.
- Few friends: Your child has a very small friends circle and is reluctant and/or unable to make new friends.
- Avoids eye contact: Your child is unable to hold eye contact when interacting with people.
- Quiet voice: Your child mumbles, whispers or otherwise speaks very quietly when talking to others.
Physical discomfort: Your child blushes, trembles and experiences nausea and stomach pain when exposed to unfamiliar social situations.
Do note that this is not an exhaustive list and exhibiting one or more of these behavioural signs does not necessarily indicate that your child has social anxiety. Rather, use them as flags that you can keep an eye on and watch for signs of further development. If you’re in any doubt, feel free to speak to the teacher at your Perth child care centre and/or consult your pediatrician.
How can I boost my child’s confidence in social situations?
- Be empathetic: Talk to your child about some of the times you’ve felt anxious in social settings so they understand it’s okay to talk about their feelings.
- Practice: At home, act out social scenarios with your child and practise things they can say or do to make the situation easier.
- Celebrate progress: When your child steps out of their comfort zone, offer lots of praise and tell them how proud you are.
- Gently Encourage: Encourage your child to take part in group activities and socialise with others. Be aware of where your child’s boundaries are and never push them into doing anything they’re intensely anxious about.
- Don’t shelter: Try to fight your parental instinct to protect your little one. Wherever possible, let your child speak for themselves and allow them to explore social interactions on their own.
- Examine your own behaviour: Evidence suggests that social anxiety can be learned. With this in mind, consider the example you’re setting for your child and try to adopt a more confident, socially savvy outlook.
- Involve the teacher: Overcoming social anxiety is a team effort. Talk to the teacher at your child care centre in Perth and together come up with a strategy that will help your child feel more confident both at home and in class.
- Respect your child’s feelings: No two kids are the same. Do your best to understand that progress may be slow and that your child may simply need more alone time than others. And that’s okay!