Monday, April 27, 2015

Social Anxiety, or You Are Going to Talk to Strangers Whether You Like It or Not!

I'm pretty sure I don't have a shy cell in my body. I have no trouble talking to anyone, anywhere, and I don't remember ever having a problem doing so.

Imagine my surprise when I gave birth to a child petrified of talking to adults. Imagine my complete and utter shock when 4 more kids were struck with the same affliction.

Some were worse than others. Some outgrew it. One has not.

Basically, I've been encouraging kids to talk to adults and ask questions for many, many years.

I wish I could give you an easy, magical solution to the problem of social anxiety, but it's not easy.

It's simple, but not easy.

The only thing that I've found to work is preparation and practice.

When Buttercup was in preschool, she would not talk to her teachers. Ever. Months and months went by, and still, despite the fact that her teachers were awesome and continued to ask her questions, she wouldn't answer.

It all changed on one particular day.

For her birthday in March, she and I made cookies for her to share with the class. I had a gut feeling her teachers would ask her about them, so I had a chat with her.

Me: If your teachers ask you if you helped make these cookies, what can you say?
Her: Yes.
Me: If they ask you what you put in them or what you did, what can you say?
Her: I poured everything into the bowl and helped hold the mixer.
Me: Awesome. Do you think you can be brave enough to say that?
Her: Yes.

I reminded her of the conversation before we went into the classroom.

When I picked her up, one of the teachers was holding up a sign that said, "She talked to us today!"

I asked what she said, and the teacher replied, "We asked her if she helped make the cookies, and she said yes. She also told us how she helped".

I finally figured it out.

My kids weren't talking because (1) they didn't know what to say, and (2) they didn't want to say the wrong thing.

After that day, Buttercup quickly shrugged off her shyness and by the next year became the mouthpiece for all of her shy friends.

All of my kids have outgrown.learned to work through their shyness except for one.

I have a teen who still wigs out when confronted with a new scenario in which speaking is required.

Until I had this child, I did not know that asking a librarian for help in finding a book was scary.

I did not know that paying for lunch at a restaurant was anything to worry about.

I did't know that calling to order pizza could cause stress.

I was blissfully unaware that asking a hotel clerk for extra towels was akin to being held at gunpoint.

But I know now. And I know that this teen needs to be able to function despite his fear. So, I don't let it go. I make him do all of the things he is so afraid to do.

He is not happy with me.

(That is an understatement.)

He gets so scared, he actually becomes defiant, which is completely out of character for him.

I still don't let it go. It really just makes me more certain that he needs to face his fears.

Perhaps an example would be helpful...

At the library last year, this particular teen wanted a book that should have been on the shelf. When I suggested he ask the librarian for help, he replied, "No. It's OK. I don't need it".

That is basically my Batsignal. Red flags waving all up in my face. By saying that, the boy is unknowingly telling me that he is petrified of doing any such thing and would rather not have the book than actually talk to the librarian.

Batman does't ignore his signal and neither do I. I don't let him get away with not talking. Instead, we discuss the situation in great detail. I walk him through all of the possibilities, basically giving him a script.

"Here is what will happen. You will walk up to the librarian's desk. She will look up and ask you if you need some help. You will say, 'I was looking for a book the computer says you have, but it's not on the shelf. Can you help me find it?' She will ask you for the title, look it up on her computer and say, "It is probably in the back waiting to be shelved. I'll be right back." You will wait for her until she returns, most likely carrying your book."

Him: No. I really don't need it.

Me: We aren't walking out of this library until you talk to the librarian.

Him (more forcefully): NO!

Me: What are you most afraid of? What is the worst possible thing that could happen?





Him: I don't know.

Me: This is her job. This is why she is behind that desk. No one is going to die. No one will even get hurt. No matter what you say, she will not come after you with a pair of scissors, claiming you are an idiot of epic proportions. You can do this. You will do this. And you will be ok.


Me: Any questions?

Him: I don't want to do it.

Me: That wasn't a question. What are you going to say to her?

Him: I was looking for a book the computer says you have, but it's not on the shelf. Can you help me find it?'

Me: Yup. Now off you go. (I actually have to give him a bit of a shove.)

He did it. Yes, I was standing right behind him, but he did it.

And no one died. No one got hurt. No one was humiliated. The librarian simply left and came back with his book.

I always ask, "What are you most afraid of? What is the worst thing that can happen?" Sometimes he tells me, sometimes he doesn't. Either way, I find it is helpful to go to that worst scenario. Naming that worst fear takes away some of its power. Making a plan about what to do in the unlikely event that the worst will happen gives him a bit more confidence, since he knows he can and will live through it.

It would be so much easier for me to just do these things myself. To not put him and me through the ordeal. But that isn't my job. My job is to prepare him for life outside of our home. He MUST learn to do these things himself in order to function in the world. So I make him.

He will thank me some day.

And I probably won't even have to make him.

Have a lovely day!


  1. Yes, he will thank you one day. I had no idea some kids were like this. I had a chatterbox that would talk to anyone. When he was little I was worried that he'd leave with a stranger. He didn't but I worried.

    Have a fabulous day. ☺

  2. WOW, I can't imagine the stress that must cause the kids. You are an amazing mother for facing the anxiety head on and going through those scenarios with your children.

  3. I was totally like that as a child and teen. There were so many things I would rather NOT DO, then do if it involved TALKING TO SOMEONE. Phone calls were especially hard.

    The thought of making a phone call put me into a total panic, so I can really relate to that child,

    Even now, as an adult, I would much, much rather email someone than call them on the phone.

    Anyway, my mom did push me into talking to strangers and for the most part it did help.

    Although I do vividely remember one traumatic incident that set me back A LOT. I had to call my 4-H leader about an acitvity and my mom told me to call her early in the morning before school (she was a teacher). My mom said it was fine, because she knew she would be home and up and to just call early. Well, I did and this person yelled at me for calling so early and said to never call early again. So that was traumatic.

    And I'm still super paranoid about making sure I don't call people at the WRONG time.

  4. This is a tough one for me personally, as well! I just feel like I am not the most confident person. I stutter and stammer and it is so stupidly embarrassing. But as an adult, I have had to learn to just push through it. Even when I look like a total goober that can't verbalize a complete sentence because my brain and my mouth just don't want to be team players! I think it all comes down to my pride and feeling dumb.

  5. Great advice - I do the same with my kids, they are not shy but I am teaching them to do things more without my help - take out a book at the library- buy lunch, go ask the cashier how is this..type of thing- I agree TY :)

  6. So perfect! And that's from the perspective of one with social anxiety! Seriously, though, the question, "What's the worst that can happen?" is what I ask myself, what therapists have taught me to as when I'm anxious. Because once that can isolated, you can think through the next steps. Good for you!

  7. from a certain perspective, it's possible to know that something is not: harmful, damaging, impossible to do with one's ability and still be in the grips of fear. fear sufficient to make disappointing the people you care about (which is the really big club to wield against oneself, justifiably or not), fear sufficient to prevent one from taking the risk... , this kind of fear carries a threat of involving more than the failure of a given act...something un-specified, actually it's the threat of scrutiny (by the real people in the real world).
    ... and sometimes (especially in the beginning) being given 'marching orders' that will overcome the inertia (which is a huge factor in this kind of fear)....thereby allowing for the experience (successful or otherwise) builds a counter argument to the voice that says, 'don't take the chance!'

  8. I used to be absolutely petrified of talking in front of people. And because I hate being afraid of something, I grabbed any opportunity to talk in front of the class I could. Was it easy? No, but it sure became easier. I still don't like being among people I don't know, but I developed the strategy to look for someone who probably feels the same (you know their look) and talk to them. There will always be things I'm afraid of, but I refuse to let them hold me back. You're definitely doing the right thing forcing him to the conversations.

  9. I can just picture this whole scene going down....right down to the shove. :P

    Believe it or not...talking to strangers doesn't come naturally to me either. I've gotten better at it but there are still times when I'd prefer to hold up the wall.

  10. You coach like me. I go through, "What is the WORST thing that might happen?" You are a fantastic mom, giving them the assist and taking the time to help them through this kind of anxiety so patiently.

  11. He might even find that he will come to enjoy public speaking. Really. Later this week, I'm going to write about how I had 5 minutes of fame as an improv comedian. And while I wasn't quite as anxious as your son when I was in high school, I definitely have a shy bone (or two!)

  12. UGH it is so difficult to prod them into doing things when they are terrified. Mine doesn't have a shy bone in her body---with adults. But with kids her own age? And forget about competing, she is so afraid she is doing something wrong. You are so right, it is our job to make them miserable.. They will thank us some day, right?

  13. nicely done! Your kiddo is gonna be so much better for learning to tolerate his own anxiety never mind challenge his own thinking about it!

  14. I imagine when he is faced with a situation where he needs to speak, your voice will be in his head saying, "what's the worst thing that could happen." I have a bit of that social anxiety. I deal with it first by procrastination and then by will. The more he does it, hopefully, the easier it will get.

  15. So hard and good for you! Tucker tonight told me in the car that a boy head-butted him on the bus after telling him he needs speech class. I actually had no idea what to say. I asked if he wanted to hit him back and he said no because he didn't want a warning from kinder patrol (the 6th graders who look out for the kindergartners). I wanted to tell him to hit back but I waited because I wasn't sure. I did make him order his meal tonight though. Good job you! (and is the kinder story even relevant? felt like it was...)


Thank you for taking the time to tell me what you're thinking!