Has it happened yet? Have you watched a sitcom and felt uncomfortability arise as you watched the characters walk into coffee shops without masks?
As we lean into 2021, so many of us are hopeful that our social climate will return to normal. Yet, as we anticipate our old, familiar, comforting ways of life, many of us are experiencing a new, unusual sense of anxiety we have not experienced before: social anxiety.
Perhaps, if you reach far enough, you can find the morsel of memory from middle school. The anxiety that riddled your very bones as you walked between towering lockers and 8th graders, wondering what thoughts were racing through other students’ heads about you (little did you know, their minds were full of the very same thoughts and fears.) And now, as you begin to revisit that time, I want you to consider all of the middle schoolers who are bracing themselves to re-enter “normal” life. While momlife and dadlife are hard, I assure you that hard is unmatched compared to the person who entered the Covid19 pandemic as a 5th grader and is leaving as a 6th grader. Or truly any grade between 5-12th.
Consider all of the moral, cognitive and social development that occurs between the ages of 10 and 18. This population has had to tackle incredibly challenging and monumental milestones through unprecedented times. So if you’re pubescent kiddo is acting like a butthead, pause and empathize. Know that the primary influencers of milestones during this season include their neighborhood, school, and peers. Most of which have been unavailable to them in the traditional sense.
Ten to twelve year olds are grappling with what Erik Erickson described as “industry vs. inferiority.” Essentially, these youth are asking the question, “How can I be competent enough to survive and thrive?” … consider how answering that question has been impacted by the crises of 2020. Individuals who have not successfully been able to answer this question, could struggle with low self esteem and a sense of inferiority. These feelings can result in social anxiety.
Thirteen to eighteen year olds are grappling with a stage called, “identity vs. role confusion.” During this time an individual is asking, “how can I survive in the adult world?” They are searching for a sense of self, and this often presents as exploration of their personal belief systems, values and convictions. Failure to feel unique and integrated can result in lack of fidelity, confusion and a low self esteem. This, too, can result in a myriad of mental health disruptions, including social anxiety.
So, how can we boost our kids’ self esteem and help them brave the big, open, Covid-free world?
- Be patient. Do not scold anxiety. Do not force a child to be social against his or her will. In fact, forcing your youth to engage socially will ultimately undermine their need to feel competent and confident. Instead, you can coach them on bravery, teach skills for managing anxiety, and offer rewards for when they choose to make small, brave choices. The key is reward even the smallest social risks taken, they call this the “stepladder” approach, and it’s a gentle approach to exposure therapy. Again, force nothing. Encourage, instead.
- Normalize. Talk about times when you have experienced social anxiety. Allow your child to see that you still make brave choices in an effort to make friends. Celebrate moments when you are brave and when you have been brave in the past in front of your kiddo.
- Teach Relaxation Skills. Teach your child deep belly breathing. You can do this by having the individual place one hand on their belly and breathing in for 3 seconds, allowing his or her belly to rise (not the chest), and then breathing out for 4 seconds. For children, I encourage them to pretend to sniff a warm cookie, filling their belly with air, and then blow the hot cookie to cool it off. If they do this 3 times then you can reward them with an actual cookie and make this a game. It is important to model this behavior. Other relaxation skills you can find on youtube include guided imagery, and comforting sensory experiences the child can take into social situations (calming smells, a soft necklace or sweater, etc.). The app Stop. Breathe. Think! Has a childrens’ app that can help teach these skills.
- Teach Cognitive Skills Teach your child thought-awareness. Have them down the thoughts that go through their mind when they are entering a social situation. Gently invite him or her to come up with 3 possible outcomes for each risk taken, and/or 3 possible thoughts other kids might be having about him or her.
- Come alongside the youth as he or she claims his or her own top values and guiding belief systems. What does he/she want to be known for? What resources do they need to explore their questions related to values, belief systems, and passions? Encourage who they are and show interest in what interests them! Do not allow differences to threaten your sense of parenthood or self. Honor your youth’s process.