How To Help A Child With Anxiety Make New Friends

Kids together in an article on how to help a child with anxiety make friends.

Making friends is an essential part of growing up. It gives kids the opportunity to develop social skills, empathy, and a sense of community. Friendships also contribute significantly to a child’s emotional well-being and their self confidence. However, for children struggling with anxiety, the process of forming new friendships can be fraught with challenges. 

This cycle of anxiety and avoidance can be difficult to break without understanding and intervention from educators and caregivers.

Understanding How Anxiety Affects Making Friends

Anxiety has an impact on kids and adults alike. And because the purpose of anxiety is to protect us from harm, feeling anxious around making friends can stunt the process entirely affecting a kid’s willingness to approach peers, initiate conversations, or participate in group activities, all of which can result in causing a child to feel isolated and alone. 

Anxiety often manifests as excessive worry, fear of negative judgment, and social awkwardness with peers and new friends. As these feelings arise, kids can start to feel overwhelmed and disinterested in making new friends. 

Children with anxiety may also experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, or a rapid heartbeat when faced with social interactions. These symptoms can further discourage them from participating in activities where they could possibly make a new friend. 

In some cases, their anxious thoughts might lead them to believe that they are unlikable or that others will reject them, and cause kids to withdraw from social opportunities altogether. And while the child may want the “outcome” of friends (belonging, feeling comfortable in their own skin, community and so on) their anxious feelings are “bigger” than their desire to be a part of the “in crowd” or picked for the team. 

Feeling anxious about making friends is a conundrum on many levels.

What To Address First, Making Friends or Anxiety?

To help a child with anxiety make friends, it is important to address their anxiety first. Anxiety is a dominant barrier to social engagements, and attempting to push a child into social situations without first managing their anxiety can be counterproductive.

Let’s Start With Anxiety

Before focusing on social skills, create a safe and supportive environment for the child that helps them build trust and security. This involves validating their feelings, listening to their concerns, and providing reassurance. A child who feels understood and supported is more likely to take small steps towards overcoming their anxiety.

As an SEL (social emotional learning) coach for many years and an ADHD coach, what I want you to really hear is that this process takes time. As adults, we can sometimes “grin and bear it” and push through the worries we feel. Kids don’t have our brains nor do they have our experience with positive outcomes so their fears are multiplied by the unknown.

Will this work out?

Will I get picked for a team?

Will they like me?

All of these questions are being asked from a young mind that does not know the outcome, they’re merely worried about the possible outcomes and that scary monster can be very big in their minds. So, it’s important to be patient as you help kids navigate their anxious feelings.

Next, you want to equip the child with techniques to manage their anxiety by teaching them effective coping strategies. There are many different breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, and positive self-talk skills that can help them handle anxious thoughts with greater ease over time and with practice. 

And remember, you’re probably already exposing your child to social situations naturally. The advice is to start with low-pressure environments where the child can interact with others without feeling overwhelmed. This helps them build confidence and can be accomplished at family gatherings or play dates with one or two peers. 

Integrating Friendship Skills

Once the child’s anxiety is more manageable, focus on developing social skills and opportunities for making friends. For instance they may be open to role-playing scenarios with you. Practicing social interactions can help a child learn how to make a new friend, initiate conversations, and respond to others.

Enroll your child in activities that match their interests, such as sports, clubs, or arts programs. Encouraging group activities and shared interests can provide a natural basis for forming friendships and reduce the pressure of making small talk.

As their primary (or one of their main) role models it’s important to demonstrate effective social skills yourself and positive body language. Children often learn by observing adults, so modeling friendly, open, and positive social behavior can provide them with a blueprint for their interactions.

Why Are Children Anxious Around New People?

Parents often ask me “why are children worried around new people?” Let me tell you, it’s more common than you know. Understanding the root causes of why children may feel anxious around new people is key to addressing their fears and helping them build social confidence. Several factors contribute towards their feeling anxious, including developmental, psychological, and environmental influences.

Developmental Factors

Some children are naturally shy. Their temperament can make new social interactions challenging as they may feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar people. Younger children often experience separation anxiety and fear of strangers. As children grow and develop, both of these “young” anxieties diminish, but they can persist or evolve into social anxiety as they mature if it’s not addressed or nurtured.

Psychological Factors

Many children worry about how others perceive them. They may fear being judged, or criticized, hence feeling nervous in social settings. Bear in mind that this fear can be more pronounced if they have had negative experiences in the past.

A lack of confidence in their social skills or self-worth can make children hesitant to interact with new people. They may doubt their ability to make friends, which causes them to withdraw socially and not initiate contact with new people.

Environmental Factors

Past experiences, such as bullying or humiliation, can impact a child’s willingness to engage with new friends. These negative memories can create a lasting fear of similar outcomes in future social interchanges.

Limited opportunities for social interaction can also hinder the development of social skills and increase anxiety. Children who have not had many chances to interact with people may feel unsure and anxious in new social circumstances.

Biological Factors

Anxiety or feeling nervous can run in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition. Children with a family history of anxiety disorders are more prone to an experience of anxiety themselves. Whether this is a learned behavior or one that can be measured in the brain remains a topic for science and research, That said, we do know that imbalances in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, can contribute to anxiety disorders, mood regulation and stress responses, all of which can show up in a child as anxiety.

If you sense this is going on for your child, it’s a great instinct to explore. Talk to your pediatrician or your child’s therapist to share your thoughts and see what can be done to help.

What Are The Signs Your Child Is Nervous With Other Kids?

Recognizing the signs that a child is feeling anxious around other kids is essential for providing timely support. Children may not always verbalize their feelings, but their behaviors and physical symptoms can offer important clues. 

And of course, this is not a diagnosis but really a set of clues to look at. The most important signal is your own “knowing” of the child. That’s all that’s required to ask lovingly how they are and to explore your instincts.

Here are some common signs that a child may be experiencing nervousness in social situations:

Behavioral Signs

  1. Avoidance

The child may avoid social interactions altogether. This could include refusing to attend social events, or opting to play alone rather than with peers.

  1. Clinging to Adults

Nervous children often seek the comfort and security of a familiar adult. They may cling to parents, teachers, or caregivers and be reluctant to venture away from them.

  1. Minimal Talking

The child might become unusually quiet around other kids, avoiding conversations or responding with minimal words and may appear shy or reluctant to engage in dialogue.

Physical Signs

  1. Fidgeting

Nervous children often exhibit physical signs of anxiety such as fidgeting, tapping their feet, or shifting their weight from one foot to the other.

  1. Avoiding Eye Contact

Difficulty maintaining eye contact can be a clear indicator of discomfort and nervousness around others.

  1. Sweating or Trembling

Visible signs of anxiety, such as sweating, trembling, or a shaky voice, may appear when the child is particularly anxious.

  1. Stomach Aches

Anxiety can manifest physically, leading to complaints of stomach aches, headaches, or feeling unwell, especially before social events.

  1. Changes in Appetite or Sleep Patterns

Increased anxiety can affect a child’s appetite and sleep. They may eat less or more than usual and have trouble falling asleep.

Emotional Signs

  1. Irritability or Moodiness

Anxiety can cause mood changes, leading to irritability, moodiness, or sudden emotional outbursts.

  1. Expressing Fear or Worry

The child might explicitly express fears about social situations, such as worrying about being judged, or making mistakes in front of others.

3 Practical Ways To Help

While screening for anxiety to help a child with anxiety disorders make new friends requires a thoughtful and supportive approach. 

1. Validate Your Child’s Experience

  • Listen Actively: Encourage your child to share their feelings without interruption.
  • Acknowledge Feelings: Use empathetic statements like, “It’s okay to feel nervous.”
  • Share Your Experiences: Relate to their feelings by sharing similar experiences, if appropriate.

2. Help Them Explore Unhelpful Thinking

  • Identify Negative Thoughts: Encourage your child to articulate their worries.
  • Challenge These Thoughts: Ask questions to help them see their thoughts as less threatening.
  • Encourage Positive Reframing: Teach them to turn negative thoughts into positive ones.

3. Explore Therapy When Needed

  • Seek a Qualified Therapist: Look for a therapist specializing in childhood anxiety, especially in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
  • Participate in Therapy: Engage in sessions to learn how to support your child.
  • Consider Group Therapy: Provide a supportive environment for practicing social skills.
  • Monitor Progress: Regularly check in with the therapist and celebrate small victories.

Reduce The Pressure To Make A New Friend

Reducing the pressure to make new friends can help alleviate a child’s anxiety and foster more comfortable social interactions. 

Focus on involving your child in activities they enjoy, where social engagement is a byproduct rather than the main goal, such as hobbies, classes or sports. Moreover, emphasize the importance of quality over quantity by encouraging them to build one meaningful relationship at a time in familiar settings like attending family or community events. Remember to provide positive reinforcement for their efforts, regardless of the outcome. 

Read The Room & See When Your Kid Wants You To Give Them Space With A New Friend

Understanding when to step back and give your child space is vital in helping kids develop independence and confidence in social engagements. Pay close attention to their body language and cues, such as a relaxed posture, smiling and engaging in conversation, which indicate comfort and readiness for more autonomy. 

Start by giving them short intervals of space, gradually increasing the time as they become more comfortable. Positive reinforcement after these intervals can build their confidence while asking your child how they feel about your presence during engagements and respecting their preferences, empowers them to ask for help or space as needed.

Likewise, be mindful of signs that your child might feel overwhelmed, such as withdrawing, or fidgeting. In these cases, your presence might still be necessary. Allow your child to set the pace for gaining independence, recognizing that some may need more time and reassurance than others. 

By balancing observation with gradual encouragement and maintaining open communication, you can effectively gauge when to give your child space, fostering their confidence and social skills while ensuring they feel supported and secure.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Needless to say, consistent practice is key to helping your child build social skills and overcome anxiety. By creating regular opportunities for engagement with peers, such as enrolling them in group activities, they can gradually develop the confidence necessary to feel at ease in social settings. 

Supporting a child with anxiety in making new friends requires patience, understanding, and consistent effort. By addressing their anxiety, validating their experiences, and providing opportunities for practice, parents and caregivers can empower children to develop the social skills and confidence needed to thrive in social situations. 

On my YouTube channel there are lots of videos to help. And, if you need a coach to support your child or family, the ADD Coach Academy has many trained coaches to help- look for the FAM trained coaches in the directory.

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