Why Your Kids Might Be Feeling Anxious About Seeing Their Peers Again

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Why Your Kids Might Be Feeling Anxious Around Others Right Now
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I have three extroverted teenagers and I’ve noticed something about them since COVID-19, especially in the last two months or so: their new normal of not seeing friends and being home more has made even the slightest outing a bit hard on them. As in, they don’t really want to put the energy or effort into seeing anyone.

They are fine to hop in the car and hit the drive-thru, but they hide if they see someone they know.

My youngest son is already nervous about the Zoom meetings he’ll have with his classmates and teachers (we opted for online learning) and has decided he will just turn his camera off after I told him it wasn’t an option for him to skip these meetings and classes.

It seems as though the more they keep to themselves, the more they struggle to muster up the energy to talk to anyone outside of our household.

They are usually extroverted, outgoing kids who like action. It seems like the more they socialize, the better they are at it. But, like a muscle, that skill has weakened with lack of use — and now they’re out of practice.

If extroverted kids are feeling socially awkward right now, let’s take a moment and think about how the shy, introverted kids must be feeling. They’ve been cut off from the world for months at a time, then are expected to pick up and go to school as if nothing traumatic has happened.

Extroverts and introverts alike, our children have been isolated, and now some are headed back to school, where everything is going to be different. The schedule, the social distancing, the masks, and everything from seating arrangements to lunchtime has changed.

Any child would be anxious about those changes. But when you have an introverted child who struggles with anxiety anyway, this whole back to school scene is their worst nightmare.

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Annie Giupponi, LMSW, PMH-C, owner of Rooted Counseling, told Scary Mommy, “Newness and uncertainty are the breeding ground of anxiety. Kids are still learning what’s expected of them in so many situations and now all the rules have changed; instead of telling them to share, to smile, to play, we’re telling them to keep their toys to themselves, to mask over their smiles, and to keep their distance.”

This is just the opposite of what they’ve been told to do their entire life.

Giupponi also mentions we shouldn’t dismiss their feelings or tell them to “just handle it.” We have to acknowledge that these circumstances are not normal for anyone. “Don’t gloss over how hard this all is with your kids. They know that things aren’t normal, and trying to put on a false happy face with them will only invalidate their feelings and confuse them further,” she says.

The reality is, some kids are going to head back to school and we need to give the best tools we have to make this awkward transition as easy on them as possible.

Giupponi advises that we talk to our kids, and let them talk to us. “We have to help them label their feelings, let them know they’re not alone in feeling a little nervous or anxious, and then reinforce that you know they can do hard things and you’ll help them figure out how,” she says.

We also need to ask questions and try to get to the root of the problem. She suggests asking specific questions and “getting really curious about what’s making them anxious in social situations and brainstorm possible solutions.”

Are they nervous about not being able to see their friends? Are they afraid of getting sick? Do they feel like they are going to do something wrong as far as social distancing?

She also recommends being gentle with your child’s feelings — and your own. Ease up on the expectations you have for your child right now (and yourself). You can do this, Giupponi says, by “[F]ocusing on creating a sense of safety for your child, physical and emotional –– that’s the most important foundation. It is okay if right now that means more time online. Once your child feels safe, you can build off of that base to return to in-person interaction. But only once it is safe AND they feel safe.”

Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor in private practice in Austin, Texas, who confirms to Scary Mommy that kids may be struggling even if they’re typically outgoing. “Consider a ‘normal’ transition like a child beginning school for the first time – an extroverted child may still have first day jitters, but be able to make friends easily. They often just dive into social situations without hesitation. Whereas an introverted child may struggle to jump into social situations spontaneously. They may be shy and hesitate to interact with others, taking the role of observer rather than active participant.” However, she adds, “[O]ver time, even introverted children will adjust to new social situations. They will eventually make new friends, they just have to dip in a toe and slowly acclimate to the social situation.”

To help them in this unprecedented time, Fielder-Jenks recommends practicing their social skills whenever possible. “Whether it’s waving to neighbors when outside playing or talking with friends and family over video, these interactions can keep their social skills fresh,” she advises. “It’s important to know that you can plan social interactions that feel safe for you and your family during this pandemic. Families can plan small gatherings or play dates with families who we’ve had transparent discussions with and with whom we feel safe interacting.”

She also stresses the importance of validating our kids’ experiences and bolstering their confidence with statements like, “Yes, we get butterflies in our tummy when we haven’t seen somebody in a while and once we see them, the butterflies will likely go away.”

The bottom line is that we want our kids to feel confident: in socializing and in general. This year school is going to be vastly different, whether your child is going to go to school in person or learn at home. Wherever they are, we need to remember to acknowledge their feelings and remind them we are their safe place, that we understand their anxious feelings are uncomfortable, and we are here to help. They’ll flex their socialization “muscle” again in time, but right now a feeling of safety in the face of uncertainty is the most important thing.

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