Tools for Anxious Children: Children and Teen Relationship-Building

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
09/12/23  12:10 PM PST
Tools for Anxious Children: Children and Teen Relationship-Building - tools for anxious children

New School Year, New Friends

The start of the school year can breed anxiety for parents of anxious children, teens, and young adults. Although your child may want and seek and desire friendships, this may be an area that needs some coaching with the fresh start of a new school year.

So, what are you, as the parent of an anxious child, teen, or young adult, to do in an effort to help your child learn how to connect with other same-aged peers, build the skills to manage situations that don’t go their way, and maintain friendships over time? This is a difficult task because you hurt for your child when you see conflicts, when you hear words like, “She’s being mean to me,” when you notice that your and your child’s invitations for playdates are not being answered or reciprocated, or when you find that your teen or young adult is not being included in social plans.

Keep Your Ears Open

For young children (elementary-aged), I encourage parents to invite a friend over to play and to keep a listening ear from the next room. That is, take note of how your child interacts with his peers. For example, is your child bossy? Or, is your child quickly backing down to what the other child wants to do but then voicing to you later that the playdate was not fun because they did not get to play the games they wanted?

Listen to how your child manages negotiations and compromises, if at all. Are you hearing, “If you don’t play this game with me, then you’re not my friend”? Take note of which games your child enjoys and if the other child is joining them.

All of this information gives you insight into how your child is interacting with other children when you are not within earshot. You are also gaining valuable information about your child’s preferences, conflict resolution skills, and social personality. And try to maintain a schedule of one playdate per week, as friendships are built outside of school. Although this is difficult for working parents, make it a point to organize one social plan for each of your children per week.

For older children (middle school and older), the car is a great place to get a vibe check on what’s happening in your pre-teen and teen’s social world. Volunteer to drive your child and friends around and let the conversations go. The quieter you are in the driver’s seat, the more they forget you’re there and speak openly and candidly.

Car rides are also a good place to start conversations with your teen because you’re not sitting face-to-face. The car tends to be this magical place for me, personally, to have short and open conversations about different topics with my teens, whether it be about grades, friendships, or social pressures. Start by asking a question or making an observation, and let the conversation roll.

Give Them the Words.

Suggest lines. These are lines that they can use in response to a peer if they are being picked on or when they are afraid to express a preference. Give them the words to say “no” when they don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings.

For an anxious child, teen, or young adult who just wants to please everyone around them, it is difficult to say no, to express that they want the blue eraser and not the red one, and to respond to a peer that they don’t want to see that movie or go to that party. It’s also challenging to respond to another person who may be belittling or picking on your child, teen, or young adult. Sometimes, kids (and adults) freeze, and the phrases we wish we had said come to them with great ease after the high anxiety and emotion dissipate.

Try lines such as:

  • No, thanks. Not today.
  • Maybe another time.
  • I’m not free that day.
  • I’m good. I’m not into that.
  • That’s not my thing.
  • You don’t like my (shoes)? That’s cool.

My teen kids know that they can always blame it on me (their mom) if they are struggling to express their preference, even if they haven’t spoken to me about whatever the event may be. In fact, my kids have texted messages like: “I’m going to call you and ask you if I could have a sleepover, but I don’t want to have one, so say no.” When the call comes through, I listen to our choreographed conversation and respond, “Not tonight. We’re busy tomorrow. Maybe another night.”

For your teen kids, set up code words via text that are clear-cut and well-understood messages to you that your child, teen, or young adult needs out of a situation, and brainstorm an exit plan in advance. For example, if your teen child is at a gathering and it’s becoming uncomfortable, have a code text message like “I’m hungry. Can you bring me food?” and that is an understood message that they need a pickup or a rescue call. It’s understood that the next step is that you will pick up or call and state that your child needs to come home.

Another few good lines could be:

  • My mom said I can’t.
  • Have you met my mom? She would kill me.
  • My mom won’t let me.

Keep It Real

Although you want your child to develop and maintain friendships, try to avoid judgments. For example, keep the conversations light when you hear what your child is reporting back about interactions with peers. Avoid statements like, “You should have more friends” or “The other kids have more playdates than you do,” as this points out a deficit, and you don’t want your already anxious child, teen, or young adult to find another source of worry. Instead, ask questions like, “Did you have a good time with so-and-so” or “At such and such?”

For younger children, playdates can be limited to one time per week with emphasis on downtime, family time, and other activities on the other days. Give them time to decompress from the day in an effort to help the body de-stress and allow for moments of lower stress or even relaxation.

If you choose an age-appropriate relaxation activity, the goal is to find something that does not involve a screen or notification sounds so that your child, teen, or young adult’s brain can disconnect from our very overstimulating world. It also gives time and space for thinking, processing, and brainstorming, as well as creativity.

Relaxation activities can include:

  • Reading a book
  • Listening to music or meditation
  • Drawing or coloring
  • Playing with sensory materials, such as sand (kinetic sand) or having a box filled with rice or beans

Helping your child navigate their social world is a tough task, especially if it was difficult for you as a child, teen, or young adult. You may find that having these conversations or thinking about setting up a playdate for your child triggers your fears of rejection and not being included. Acknowledge your feelings and understand that it’s OK for both of you to be anxious. In fact, it will likely give you a good perspective into your child’s anxieties and worries.

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