Around the world, children’s social lives have drastically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent physical distancing.  For many children, these changes represent major losses of beloved activities, including school, extra-curricular activities, and playdates. For socially anxious children, however, the many cancellations may come as a relief since they no longer need to attend potentially anxiety-provoking activities. As a parent or caretaker, it can be concerning to watch your socially anxious child withdraw during this already challenging time. However, there are many small steps you can take to encourage your child to be social and build skills in this area—even during the pandemic.

Why Facing Fears is Important 

It is important for socially anxious children to practice engaging in social situations, even though it is hard. This is because when children consistently avoid something that they fear, their brain misses out on several key learning opportunities. These include the chance to learn that the situation is rarely as bad as anxiety predicts it will be, that they can handle feelings of anxiety even though they are uncomfortable, and that their level of anxiety will likely decrease if they stay in the social situation. In a socially anxious child’s typical day to day life, they have countless opportunities to practice engaging in social situations to teach their brain these important lessons. By creating opportunities for your socially anxious child to continue to engage with peers in quarantine, you can help their brains continue to learn these lessons. 

Create a Bravery Plan

Sit down with your child and explain that you want to help them boss back anxiety and continue to practice facing fears, as they were doing so bravely before the quarantine started. It can be helpful to reflect together on how they feel after pushing themselves to engage in a social situation. Proud? Accomplished? Reflect back often to these observations to help build and maintain your child’s motivation. 

Collaboratively brainstorm with your child a list of potential social interactions. Do your best to get creative and try to think of ways to replicate the activities they participate in during their non-quarantine life. These might include (virtual) playdates, book clubs, singalongs, games, concerts, or show and tell with objects from each child’s home. If classmates or peers live nearby, your child might bike, walk, or scoot by their homes and say a physically-distanced hello. 

After creating a list, let your child choose where they are comfortable starting. It is usually helpful to start small (e.g., saying “hi” over text to someone they are comfortable with) and eventually build to more challenging interactions. It can be helpful to repeat an activity several times to allow your child to get more comfortable with it before moving on to a slightly harder activity. After your child engages in the activity, have a brief conversation to help them notice if the activity was as scary as anxiety said it would be and if they were able to handle it. This brief reflection helps to cement the new learning in their brain. 

Reward Brave Steps 

As your child engages in social activities, celebrate their efforts! It is important to encourage and praise your child even if they did not fully achieve a goal. Tell them specifically why you are proud of them (e.g., “I loved how brave you were when you joined the chat with kids you don’t know as well” rather than “good job.”). Consider giving them small rewards for taking brave steps, such as getting to choose the family’s dinner one night or having 15 minutes of sibling-free play time with a parent. 

Resist the Urge to Jump In

It can be very tempting to step in when you hear a virtual playdate going awry; however, you are unable to step in on the playground at recess. Unless your child is being bullied or is unsafe, try to let them muddle through the challenging interaction on their own. By letting your child cope independently with social challenges, you help them learn that they can handle difficult situations with peers. After a difficult interaction, you can help your child problem solve how they might do things differently in the future.

When to Seek Help

If your child is experiencing so much anxiety in social situations that it causes significant distress or impacts their functioning (e.g., trouble signing on to virtual school for fear of interacting with others), consider consulting with a mental health professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There is no need to wait until social distancing restrictions are lifted. During the current crisis, many mental health providers are offering therapy over virtual meeting platforms. Click here to find a therapist near you.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • Hector’s Favorite Place

    by Jo Rooks

    Hector loves his cozy, snuggly, safe home. It’s his favorite place to be. Hector loves his home so much that he doesn’t often go out, and soon, it starts to affect his friendships.

    Can Hector find the courage to break out of his comfort zone?

    Included is a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals by Julia Martin Burch, PhD, that discusses helping children overcome their worries and break out of their comfort zone.