The social skills of many preschoolers are, to put it mildly, lacking. From shyness to tantrums, preschoolers just aren’t equipped with the social graces of adults and older children. Anxiety about separation, shyness and social anxiety are also fairly common among preschoolers, which can leave many parents wondering if their children have a problem with social anxiety disorder. Here’s how to detect the signs of social anxiety in preschool-age children and how to treat the problem:
Detecting Social Anxiety in Preschoolers
Developmentally speaking, it’s normal for preschoolers to be shy. Many preschoolers have a lot of difficulty separating from their parents, and almost all preschoolers are creatures of habit. This means that most children will experience some anxiety about new social situations, and it’s not unusual for a perfectly normal preschooler to panic when separated from his or her parents. Most psychologists and pediatricians are unlikely to diagnose a preschooler with a social anxiety disorder simply because many of the symptoms of social anxiety are also developmentally normal for preschoolers. Except in very extreme cases, managing your preschooler’s social anxiety is something you can do without treatment.
Managing Social Anxiety in Preschoolers
It’s easy for adults to forget how new everything in the world is to a preschool-age child. Kids this age can have trouble differentiating fantasy from reality and thus may be frightened when meeting new friends. They also haven’t mastered social interactions, so shyness both with adults and peers can be the result. Here are some things you can do to help ameliorate this anxiety:
Model Good Social Skills
When children see their parents having meaningful, fun friendships they will be more inclined to want to make friends of their own.
Act as an Intermediary for Your Child in Social Situations
Help your child introduce himself to other kids, and encourage play with toys or suggest a game. Setting up regular playdates can be helpful in this regard. Even if children don’t play directly with each other, being around other kids can help your anxious preschooler gradually become less shy.
Talk to Your Child About Her Fears
If your child seems anxious or afraid when she’s around other kids, ask her if she knows what she is afraid of. Social anxiety in preschoolers is often residual separation anxiety. Your child may still feel uncomfortable being away from you.
Talk to Your Child’s Preschool Teacher
Several studies have indicated that teachers are often the best judges of whether a child is suffering from a true anxiety disorder or just simple shyness. Your child’s teacher may have helpful suggestions and can give you a window into what your child’s behavior is like when you are not around.
Engage in Pretend Play
Preschoolers love pretend play, and there’s good evidence that this play provides them with several useful social skills. Moreover, by engaging in pretend play with your child, you may have an opportunity to see your child act out her fears in social situations. By learning about these fears, you can help her work past them.
When To Seek Help
If your child’s social anxiety is getting worse after trying the above suggestions, or if your child’s anxiety is dramatically interfering with her life, it’s time to talk to her pediatrician. Early intervention can help shy or anxious children learn social skills and become less anxious. Some indications that it’s time to talk to your pediatrician include:
-A child who continues to cry for more than 20 or 30 minutes after a separation from a parent on a regular basis
-A child who reacts to her anxiety by bullying or becoming aggressive with other kids
-A child who has not made friends or learned how to play with other children by the age of 5
-A child who the other children seem to actively dislike
While social anxiety in preschoolers can be stressful to parents, in the vast majority of cases it is developmentally normal and will fade away as your child moves into his next stage of emotional and intellectual development.
Koos Bokhorst, Fritz A. Goossens, Piet A. De Ruyter, “Early detection of social anxiety: Reliability and validity of a teacher questionnaire for the identification of social anxiety in young children,” BNet.
Robert J. Coplan, Ph.D., “Social Anxiety and Maladjustment in the Preschool,” McMaster University.
The Emotional Life of the Toddler. Lieberman, Alicia F. 1995. Print.