How to Conquer Social Anxiety in K–12 School Children

6 min to read
Parent helping child cope with anxiety

Colorado Connections Academy student Grace Davis was diagnosed with leukemia at age five and then went through 2 1/2 years of cancer treatments. Grace found it difficult to transition back to her local brick-and-mortar school after her treatments ended, and she began to experience anxiety. When her school organized a cancer fundraiser, she felt her anxiety spike and wanted out. 

The reality is, it’s not uncommon for children to experience anxiety, specifically social anxiety, the same way that adults do. Recent research shows that nearly 10% of adolescents experience social anxiety, with the prevalence of social anxiety disorder in kids being higher for females than males. But what exactly is childhood social anxiety? And how can you recognize the symptoms to better understand how to help a child with social anxiety? 

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is a mental health condition in which social interactions can cause an increase in anxiety. The key feature of those who experience social anxiety is “an excessive fear or worry about how others will evaluate them in social situations.”  

What causes social anxiety in children?

There are a number of reasons why children can develop social anxiety. It may be a learned behavior, something they observe and begin modeling after watching parents, siblings, friends, or other role models exhibit socially anxious behavior. Childhood social anxiety could also more easily develop in children with naturally shy, sensitive, or cautious dispositions.  

“Feeling pressured to interact in ways they don't feel ready for, being criticized or humiliated, or having other fears and worries can make it more likely for a shy or fearful person to develop social anxiety,” according to Johns Hopkins All Childrens Hospital

What are the Signs of Anxiety in K–12 Children?

Understanding social anxiety, and how and why it rears its head in “normal” situations, can be surprisingly difficult. Perhaps you don’t understand why your otherwise happy, smart, and articulate child doesn’t play with other children at recess or has trouble making friends. 

Typically, children who are experiencing anxiety have physical symptoms and complaints, which may include: 

  • Not wanting to go to school 
  • Stomachaches and headaches 
  • Crying 
  • Tantrums 
  • Lack of focus 

Children with social anxiety may also actively avoid social situations where they might be the focus of attention, have a limited number of friends, or generally have difficulty meeting new people or joining social groups.  

What is Not Social Anxiety?

It’s also important to be aware and recognize what is and is not social anxiety. For example, if you have a child that is naturally shy or introverted, it may be easy to mistake this personality quality for social anxiety

Social anxiety is an intense fear brought on by social situations that often leaves kids so afraid they cannot function and can often lead to them going to great lengths to avoid social situations altogether.  

In addition, more serious struggles, such as depression may present as anxiety. If you are concerned about your child’s health or behavior, it's always best to seek the advice of a doctor before taking any action. 

A parent describes social anxiety in kids to her child.

How to Explain Anxiety to a Child

If you feel that your child may be experiencing social anxiety or anxiety in general, one of the best things to do is to address it head on.  

Explain that anxiety is natural and that everyone experiences anxiety. It is like a smoke alarm, which is supposed to protect us from danger. But sometimes, the alarm goes off when we are not in danger, like when someone burns popcorn in the microwave. There is an alert, but no danger that needs a reaction. Anxiety and social anxiety can be the same way; their body is sounding the alarm, but they are not actually in danger.   

You can support your child by telling them and showing them that you understand the anxious feelings they may be experiencing, and that they are not alone in experiencing these sorts of things. Talk with them about how they are feeling and what might be causing them stress or worry. A little bit of conversation can go a long way in addressing childhood social anxiety. 

A child learns anxiety coping skills for kids.

How to Help a Child with Social Anxiety

While you will need to go to a doctor for an official diagnosis, here are some steps you can take to help your child understand their triggers and develop anxiety coping skills for kids to help them deal with anxiety in school: 

1. Don’t let your child completely opt out of social situations.

If you’re wondering how to reduce social anxiety for kids, it may be tempting to just let them skip participating in group activities and highly social situations. But, if you give your child the okay to skip after-school soccer, for example, your student may miss out on developing critical relationship-building skills, problem-solving skills, and exercise. Experts at the Child Mind Institute say that avoiding social interactions can make anxiety worse in the long run. Instead, encourage your child to try new things and reassure them that it’s okay and perfectly normal to feel nervous in new situations. In fact, trying new things can help them build their self-esteem

A small, empowering step to help childhood anxiety would be to encourage your child to try a social situation for a short amount of time. Rather than completely missing an event, give them something to control, like when they would like to leave. For example, encourage your child to stay at an event for 10 minutes. If they want to leave after that, let them. If they want to stay, then encourage them to add smaller steps until they become more comfortable.  

2. Rehearse how to handle new scenarios.

Like the Scouts say, “be prepared.” This applies to children with anxiety as well. If your child is starting at a new school, for example, and you have the opportunity to attend an open house to meet the teacher and classmates, that can give you a great chance to walk through the school and build familiarity with a new routine. Show your child where their seat will be and review the daily schedule. 

You can also help your student become less anxious by discovering together what it is about the situation that makes them anxious. If it is a fear of not knowing what to say or do when they are in a new situation, model problem-solving techniques like looking for signs to point them in the direction of the restrooms or the front office or learn how to introduce themselves to new friends to help empower your child to be more confident and independent.  

3. Explore school-based accommodations for anxiety.

You may not be able to handle your child’s social anxiety without help from the school counselor or other health professional. In addition to checking in with your pediatrician or another primary health-care provider for advice, you can ask the school to provide accommodations through a formal process for identifying children with special needs. 

While your child may or may not qualify for a full Individualized Education Program (IEP), he or she may qualify for special accommodations like preferential seating, early arrival and dismissal from class, a quiet space for working or decompressing, or small lunch groupings sometimes called “Lunch Bunch” to help them navigate challenges during the school day. 

4. Consider changing schools

Even walking into the classroom was a challenge for Grace, so her parents chose to look for another school. Now, instead of making that walk, she logs into her courses online.  

“Grace is reading the same thing as her counterparts in brick-and-mortar school,” said Jennifer Davis, Grace’s mom. “Online school is just a perfect option for her.” 

A traditional public school may not work for your child. If you’ve tried all the above steps and have worked with a professional to mitigate your child’s anxiety, you may want to consider changing schools. Private schools, while an option, can be expensive and require extra commuting. 

Connections Academy may also help a child suffering from anxiety. Your child can have access to your state’s approved grade-level curriculum but receive their education in the comfort of your home. Some families choose to have their child participate in clubs or group activities either online or in person to keep a sense of connectedness with peers. 

View our online school eGuide to explore how Connections Academy, the tuition-free online public school for grades K–12, works. 


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