Helping a toddler with social anxiety

Many toddlers go through periods of bashfulness, in fact, worries and fears are a normal part of childhood development. Other children are bashful a bit more often, sometimes even so much so that their personalities might be described as “shy.” In general there is nothing wrong with being shy, in fact, children with shy personalities are often also self-reliant, thoughtful, and empathetic – all great qualities! Choosing not to be the life of the playground party is totally fine, but your little introvert still needs to learn how to navigate social situations and build relationships, and they may need a bit more help with these life skills than their more outgoing peers.

Here are what experts say to keep in mind when trying to help a toddler through mild social anxiety:

  • Embrace their shy personality. Make sure your child knows it’s okay to be the way they are, and that being a little anxious isn’t bad or wrong.
  • When they're feeling nervous, remind them of past events that went well, like a recent playdate or a birthday party, as a way of reinforcing how fun social interactions can be.
  • Help them out with entry strategies. “Want to share my cookies?” or “Want to build a castle together?” are great icebreakers for playtime.
  • Praise and reward Baby for trying. Notice when they wave hi, or when they join in the fun, and tell them you’re proud of them.
  • Help them practice being social by providing opportunities for them to have one on one playdates. A lot of introverted people (adults included) actually build relationships better in a one on one setting, and big groups can feel intimidating to anyone!
  • When you can see that Baby is feeling shy, it can be useful to help them identify that feeling, and to let them know it’s ok. Tell them stories of times when you overcame your own shyness, so they understand it’s normal to feel the way they feel.
  • Show them acceptance and love, and know they may never become a social butterfly, but with your help and understanding, they can learn how to manage social events in a healthy way, and on their own terms. On the other hand, Baby is still pretty little, and their personality isn’t set in stone. Talking about shyness as a feeling instead of as an identity can help them keep an open mind about their own level of social engagement as they grow.

Social anxiety disorder

Between 20% and 48% of people have shy personalities, which is totally normal. However, some children who experience true fear or anxiety when faced with social situations may be more than just shy. They may be suffering from a clinical issue called social anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, are the most common childhood-onset psychiatric disorder. A clinical anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are persistent and excessive, impairing your child’s ability to live a normal day to day life. A diagnosis can only be made by a professional clinician. You may wish to seek professional advice if, as your child grows, they:

  • Doesn’t want to go to school
  • Worries in advance about parties or social events
  • Has trouble breathing or gets physically ill in social situations
  • Uses aggression towards others as a way of dealing with anxiety
  • Has trouble making friends
  • Is anxious or upset about their own shyness

If your child is diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, their healthcare provider will work with you and your whole family on a treatment plan. By acknowledging and treating a clinical anxiety disorder early on you can ensure that your child will continue to grow and develop the social skills they need to be successful for the rest of their life. 

  • Bennett, S., Walkup, J. “Anxiety disorders in children and adolescents: Assessment and diagnosis.” In: UpToDate, Post TW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. Accessed June 3 2017.
  • Burstein,M., Ameli-Grillon, L., Merikangas, K. “Shyness Versus Social Phobia in US Youth.” American Academy of Pediatrics. October 17 2011. Accessed June 3 2017.
  • “Social Anxiety: Five Strategies for Helping Children With Anxiety Cope.” Children With Anxiety. Anxiety-Free Children. No date. Accessed June 3 2017.

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