Modeling social skills to your child with social anxiety disorder (SAD) can make a difference in how SAD develops. We know that SAD is generally the result of a combination of a genetic predisposition inherited from one or both parents, and environmental triggers. This is good news for parents, because it means that you have some influence on the course of the disorder.
One way that parents influence the environment of their children is through the behavior that they exhibit themselves. Unfortunately, because SAD is partly inherited, chances are good that one or both parents of kids with SAD also suffer from social anxiety themselves.
If this is true for you or your spouse, it means that you probably display a lot of behaviors that your child picks up on -- nervousness, anxiety and discomfort around others. But not to worry: Realize the impact that you have on your child and make an attempt to model behaviors that will give him a fighting chance. If you find that the following suggestions are too far out of your comfort zone, you may need to first get a handle on your own social anxiety.
Here are some ideas to get you started modeling appropriate social behaviors:
Be courteous. If you are extremely shy or anxious, you can start by doing little things for people that model good social skills. Hold the door for a stranger. If someone drops something pick it up for them. Offer to help someone carry something. Try to make these actions automatic habits and pretty soon you will find yourself doing them without thinking twice.
Say “hi” to strangers. The cashier at the grocery store, the person who delivers the mail –- anyone who crosses your path during the day. Introduce yourself, offer a firm handshake and strike up a conversation. What have you got to lose? You’ll be modeling confident social behaviors for your child and who knows -– you may even meet a new friend.
Give others compliments. Whether it is a stranger or a friend, everyone appreciates a sincere compliment. Let someone know if you like their outfit or new hairstyle. Encourage your children to do the same with their peers.
Take risks. One of the problems faced by all people with SAD is that they avoid doing things out of fear of looking foolish. Children may avoid answering questions in class for fear of giving the wrong answer. They may avoid playing sports for fear that they will be clumsy or not good enough. It is important for children to know that life is all about taking chances, taking risks, and learning from failure. Encourage your child to think about each failure as one rung up the ladder to success. Take risks yourself and tell your children about them. Say things like “That was a lot easier than I thought it would be," or “I didn’t quite get that right this time, but next time I’m sure I’ll be even better at it”.
- Avoid being judgmental. People with SAD tend to be very critical of themselves. If you are overly critical as a parent, your child will learn to be critical as well, both of herself and of others. Over time, she will expect that others are judging her. Be a good role model and show tolerance and respect for others even if they have flaws. This will teach your children that they have value even if they are not perfect.
In general, as a parent of a child with SAD, it is important that you model confident social behavior for your child to observe. In particular, if you know that there are areas your child is struggling with, such as making new friends, make a point of modeling these behaviors in front of him.
Can’t quite get your head around being a confident role model? Perhaps taking a class in social skills or being assertive is in order. Another option is to have her spend some time with another more socially confident adult such as a relative or an adult supervisor of a group or club. Going this route has the added benefit that your child gets the chance to interact with adults outside of the immediate family.
Above all else, remember that your words and actions are very important in shaping who your children become. Nervous parents tend to raise nervous children. So if you count yourself among the socially anxious, take some time to make sure that your own anxiety is under control and then practice being a good role model for your children. They will thank you for it when they are adults.
Gilbert R. Parenting Shy Children. Accessed December 21, 2007.