For many kids, adjusting to different social situations, whether it’s a playdate or a birthday party, can be difficult. Even if the child wants to attend the party or playdate, it may require significant patience and persistence from parents in order for the child to succeed. It also may be painful for parents to then watch them struggle.
Many of the children that I see in group and individual therapy suffer from some type of anxiety. Whether they meet criteria for a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Social Anxiety Disorder, or just need some tips on how to overcome specific situations, I find a defined step-by-step approach yields the best results.
One of the best things that you can do for your anxious child is to go over each event with them in as much detail as possible in advance. If you can, find out which part of the situation causes the most anxiety. Is it because there will be a lot of kids, new kids, fear of the unknown or worry that they will not be competent at the activity? Using role playing and scripting with your child about the event may decrease the anxiety by making the activity feel less overwhelming. In addition, these specific tactics may be helpful.
For birthday parties:
- If your child is nervous about attending a birthday party, go the location prior to the party to try to make them more comfortable with the setting.
- If possible, arrive at the birthday party with another invited child so that your child will be able to walk into the party with a friend.
- Show up to the party about 10 minutes early, as it may be less chaotic and will provide your child a chance to warm up to the setting.
- Recognize that even if your child is sitting and observing, that is okay! You can encourage them to participate (or move a little closer to his/her peers), but watching may be less anxiety provoking and can lead to trying again in the future.
- Have the initial playdate at your house. This is often easier for your child and gives you the opportunity to intervene, if necessary.
- Keep the playdate relatively short for the first few times. You may want to start with an hour or two and then you can increase it over time, depending on age and comfort level.
- Initial playdates should be well defined with structured activities. Children who are anxious in social situations often have trouble with a less structured playdate for fear of not knowing what to do or say. If the playdate is at your house, have your child choose a few good activities beforehand to suggest to his/her peer.
Lastly, praise, praise, praise your child for doing anything that brings them out of their comfort zone. Whether they are able to play with someone new or just sit on the outskirts of the party, they deserve to be rewarded for progress. And you deserve to be rewarded as well!