Help Your Child Deal with Criticism

Where would the world be without constructive feedback? While criticism may sting, it is necessary to help us grow and improve. If we’re not willing to be criticized, we can go on for a long time thinking we’re doing well, when we’re actually moving in the wrong direction. In short, painful as it may sometimes be, criticism is good for us and our children.

It is important that parents teach their kids how deal with criticism in a healthy and positive way. While all parents want to protect their child’s ego and self-esteem, the reality is that no one can ever really avoid appraisal. When a child wants to join the football team, he’ll have to face the coach’s assessment. When he wants to be a performer, he’ll have to deal with the auditions and the performance reviews. And of course, any child who wants to survive school for twenty or more years is going to need to know how to comfortably handle negative feedback from teachers and peers. On the home front criticism is rampant, coming at a child from all sides (Mom, Dad & siblings). The over-sensitive child will suffer excessively and may become an adult whose over-reaction at work, in marriage and in parenting brings painful consequences.

So how can you help your child deal with criticism? Consider the following tips:

Establish a Culture of Assertive Communication in Your Home
Training a child how to handle negative feedback should begin at home. Make a habit of offering each other constructive criticism — feedback  that is well-intentioned and geared towards building a person up instead of putting him down. When a child handles other people’s opinions on a regular basis, he or she will be more open to criticism from other people. Don’t be afraid to give the child helpful guidance. It’s O.K. to say things like, “Thank you for setting the table Honey. I’d really appreciate it if you could make sure to put the napkins by each plate next time.” Offering negative feedback respectfully helps children learn that criticism is safe and not harmful. When parents criticize harshly, however, children become “allergic” to negative feedback of any kind. This is why we see adults who cannot tolerate any criticism at all from their spouse. They have been scarred by too much and/or too harsh criticism during childhood. Keep criticism in its place within the 80-20 Rule (see Ch. 3, Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe).

One Person’s Point of View Doesn’t Make a Fact
Let your child know that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not all opinions should be taken as being valid and true. Each criticism should be taken as a mere suggestion; you can accept it or refuse it. When kids know that they are not obliged to internalize everything that other people say, they will not be beaten down by unsolicited and undeserved negative feedback. Indeed, clarify that they can always respond assertively to an unfair criticism — a critique need not define their person. It is equally important to help children identify abusive forms of communication. When children hear harsh criticism that they recognize as abusive (too loud, too insulting, too long and so on), they can recognize that the fault is with the communicator (the one who is doing the criticizing) rather than with themselves. In this way, they are spared from absorbing the negative judgments of the speaker and internalizing self-hatred and low self-worth.

Help Them Process the Criticism That They Receive
Distilling the good and the areas of improvement in a criticism takes skill — you need to teach it to your child as it is unlikely to develop on its own. So instead of merely agreeing or disagreeing to a critique, help your child learn to analyze: is there merit to this critique? And if so, what were the things that I did right? What are the things that I should not do again? Criticism can be a motivating factor if you and your child know what to do with it.

Showcase People Who Have Successfully Bounced Back from Criticism
Negative feedback may feel like the end of the world. But the reality is, many people have successfully bounced back from the many negative things that people say about them. The key is to analyzing the feedback without taking things personal. If you can separate the message from the feeling the message elicits in you, you can make the most of a criticism. Your local librarian can help you find age-appropriate novesls and biographies for your kids to read that will demonstrate how others have handled criticism. Learning that most great writers, inventors and accomplished business people had to deal with plenty of rejection and negative feedback before they finally hit success, can provide an inspirational model.

Help Your Child Deal with Rejection

Louise worked so hard on her speech; she wanted to be the school’s representative in the annual public speaking contest. Unfortunately, she didn’t pass the auditions. She was so disappointed.

It took awhile for Tommy to ask Jerry and his friends if he could join them in their game of softball.  After one week of mustering the courage to ask, Tommy had to deal with Jerry’s hurtful answer: a “no.” 

Nobody wants to be rejected. It’s painful and humiliating and at times extremely frustrating. It can also make a person question his or her self-worth. If you’re always rejected, it’s not unusual to ask: “Can something be wrong with me?”

To avoid feeling defeated by rejection, it’s important to develop one’s coping muscles. It’s unreasonable to expect that we will be accepted all time; in life, there will always be moments of rejection. What’s important is that we gain control of the setback, so that it doesn’t debilitate us.

The following are some of the ways parents can help their child deal with rejection:

Raise Your Child’s Self-Esteem
Parents can help bolster their’ child’s self-esteem in three important ways:

  1. By giving generous positive feedback
  2. By limiting and softening necessary criticism
  3. By giving children ample opportunity  to experience success through their own activities

When a child has a positive view of self, he or she has a strong shield against the sting of rejection. Rejection becomes situational instead of personal, with the pain temporary instead of permanent. When you know deep down that you’re a person of worth, you’re willing to risk trying again, because you know the problem is not inherent in you.

Allow Your Child to Feel Disappointment
Welcome, name and accept all of your child’s feelings, including the sad ones. Avoid the rule: “You must always feel happy!” This rule stunts children’s emotional growth and makes it very difficult for them to ride through inevitable negative feelings and life experiences. Disappointment is just part of life. When you use “emotional coaching” (the calm naming of a child’s feelings) you demonstrate that YOU aren’t frightened by the child’s temporary distress. YOU can handle it! This gives the child courage to handle it too. Remember, you don’t have to force your child to cheer up every time he or she gets rejected. In fact, the best thing you can do is to give them time to feel sad about their situation! You can say something like, “Gosh, I guess that’s pretty disappointing.” Don’t look like you’re going to cry! Have confidence in your child’s ability to face life. In fact, the more you are able to comfortably name the child’s feelings, the more the child will be able to manage moments of distress. Remember that no matter what has happened, the sadness will pass and the child will be able to get on with life.

Help Your Child Figure Out How to Do Better
Rejection is an excellent motivator, and parents can take the opportunity to teach their child how to channel their disappointment into inspiration. Help your child figure out the reason why they got rejected. Perhaps they didn’t try hard enough; perhaps they were the wrong fit with the crowd. Whatever the reason is, there are always ways to do better the next time around. Effective problem-solving can lead to greater success.

Identify to Your Child the Areas Outside of His or Her Control
Sometimes the rejection is unfair and arbitrary. Sometimes rejection is the result of large numbers and insufficient placements. There may be a time when your child is subject to some form of bullying that leads to exclusion. Or your child could lose out on a great opportunity because someone forgot to file his or her application form. When these situations happen, it’s important to teach kids that sometimes it’s just unfortunate circumstances, or “not meant to be.” Not everything is within our control, and when we face something we can’t influence, the best approach is to simply let go. Those with a strong religious faith can draw on their belief that the rejection is not an accident and it is meant for one’s best development.

New Baby in the Family

The arrival of a new baby can be threatening to an older sibling. After being the sole apple of parents’ eyes, a new “creature” suddenly taking all the attention can trigger jealousy, anger and sadness. Younger children may fear that parents will no longer love them once the new baby settles in. They may also develop resentment over having to give up certain things, like sole use of a a bedroom or a particular game or activity.

What can parents do to help their young children adjust to the arrival of a new baby? Consider the following tips:

Prepare Your Children
The best way to buffer a child’s anxiety is to not blindside them with the changes that are coming. In the last trimester of pregnancy, inform your children what to expect. Show them pictures and videos of infant development – your library and the internet are great resources! Emphasize that babies are helpless, and therefore will need a lot of mommy and daddy’s care (just as they did at that stage): they need to be fed, held, changed, burped, dressed, bathed and all the rest. Let them know that it won’t always be that way because babies turn into toddlers and kids who can feed themselves, dress themselves and use the toilet.

Give Your Children Responsibilities
Kids may feel less left out, if they know they have a role to play in the new family structure. New responsibilities can make children feel needed – indispensable and appreciated –  unlike the baby who just cries and cries! Kids can assist in many ways; during feeding, bathing and dressing the baby. Just remember to thank and compliment them for a job well done! Also, if these “helpers” are little guys themselves, make sure to allow them to continue to be little in their own right. A two year old, for instance, is not a big girl! She is “Mommy’s best little helper.” When a toddler or pre-schooler is allowed to enjoy the benefits of littleness even though a baby has entered the family, the young child suffers much less. She is not “de-throned” or promoted beyond her stage of life. She continues to be loved and coddled as the little person she truly is, even though there is now an even littler person in the house as well.

Highlight the Positive
It’s fine to talk about the benefits of siblings that will eventually come. Remember – it takes a really long time (especially from a child’s perspective) before a sibling can become a fun playmate. However, it is certainly something to look forward to. “Just think – one day you and little Joe will be able to play ball together! Won’t that be fun?”

Explain Why Rules can be Bent for the Baby
One of the common causes of resentment against a new baby is perceived preferential treatment. A 7 month old baby who accidentally breaks his or her older sibling’s toy is not likely to be reprimanded; after all, what does the baby know? Instead, the older sibling may even get the brunt of the blame, for handing the toy to the baby to begin with! It’s important then for parents to explain to their older children that babies are not accountable for what they do, and it’s up to bigger people to make sure that they do not get in harm’s way.

Spend  Quality Time with Your Older Children While You Hold the Baby
Jealousy can be minimized if parents ensure that they don’t neglect their older children. It’s understandable that parents are overwhelmed and exhausted after bringing a new baby into the family. However, the other child or children still need so much parental attention. Put the baby on your lap and invite the others around for storytime. Or, put the baby in the stroller and take the others to the park. Or, wear the baby in a carrier and take the others to the mall. Babies just need to be held, and older children just need to be interacted with – so it can all happen at the same time. There is no need to leave the baby at home while you take the others out. In fact, this can increase insecurity in the other children as they see for themselves that you are willing to abandon your infant. Little kids are more than happy to have the baby come along and be involved in all their activities. They love the feeling of being one big happy family.

New Mothers Need Extra Rest
Sometimes this temporary absence leaves toddlers and pre-schoolers feeling abandoned. One way around this is to invite little ones to lie down for nap time in Mom’s room (if they’re the cooperative types) or to make sure they are with a favorite babysitter or engaged in a special activity while Mom naps. This may be the time to invest in a new toy, craft kit, computer game or video.

Remember to “Gush” Over the Toddlers as Well as the Baby
One way to do this is to talk to the baby “through” the toddler. “Look Tara! Do you see that cute face baby Jon just made? Isn’t he funny?” This is preferrable to ignoring Tara while talking directly to the baby. In the latter scenario, Tara is likely to feel ignored or less important or less adored; her “solution” might be to try to get your attention inappropriately.

Cut Them Some Slack When They Act Out
When there is a new baby in the household, kids may act-out to demand your attention. They may regress behaviorally, and act as if they are infants themselves. They may misbehave at home or school. Understand that all these mini-rebellions are just means of expressing their upset feelings (confusion, fear, sadness and anger); be extra patient and ignore the bad stuff as much as you can for a couple of months. Once the baby has become “old news,” you can return to normal standards of discipline.

Fear of Clowns

I’m sure you’ve seen it: a child cringing and screaming at the sight of Ronald McDonald, Krusty the Clown, Circus Charlie or another clown. Whether the youngster met the clown in person or just saw him or her on television, the reaction is the same: intense dislike, panic, even pure horror. It makes one wonder: how can a mascot designed to bring on fun and silliness end up being a villain?

The fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. This phobia is more common than most think, affecting both adults and children across different cultures. In most cases, coulrophobia is a mild and temporary phobia, one that starts in early childhood and is naturally outgrown by puberty. But extreme cases also exist, with sufferers experiencing severe stress by the mere thought of clowns.

Why Would Kids be Afraid of Clowns?
Most of us recognize that clowns are just ordinary people dressed up in heavy make-up, colorful wigs and baggy clothes. We can also associate their presence with entertainment, magic tricks and comic relief. However, kids – especially really young children – can’t yet make those conclusions.

For them, clowns are strange-looking creatures who interact with them in a way that they are not used to. It’s only natural for children to be wary and fearful of what they don’t understand — it’s part of a person’s natural instinct. Also, consider that kids often meet clowns in loud and confusing settings, such as at a party, a show or a carnival. The context can also make clowns feel very intimidating to young children.

Media images may also play a role in the “villain-ization” of clowns. Television shows and movies today often poke fun at coulrophobia; take Bart’s line of “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me,” in an episode of the The Simpsons, or Sam Winchester’s “Planes crash… and apparently clowns kill,” in the horror series Supernatural. The late Heath Ledger also gave a convincing portrayal of a psychopath clown as The Joker in the movie Batman: Dark Knight. These kinds of images only contribute to feelings of upset and fear that vulnerable children may have.

What can Parents Do?
Fear of clowns that developed spontaneously (that is, was not caused by a traumatic experience involving clowns) will eventually go away on its own. However, clowns are hard to avoid in a child’s life – they show up on T.V., in movies, at shopping malls, at a birthday parties and many other places that children frequent. If a child’s fear is overwhelming to the point where the child doesn’t want to go out or to the point that the child will have a full blown panic attack upon seeing a clown, then professional help is in order. Child psychologists can help a child recover from coulrophobia.

If the fear is annoying but not that strong, then home treatment may suffice; try Bach Flower Remedies like Mimulus for phobias and Rock Rose for panic attacks – 2 drops of each given 4 times a day over a number of months can gently melt fear out of the system. Also, taking the Bach preparation Rescue Remedy along on outings is a useful strategy. Rescue Remedy can quickly calm a child and turn off a panic attack or tantrum – 4 drops in a small amount of liquid, given every couple of minutes usually calms the child very quickly. It also comes in spray form so that it can be sprayed into the child’s mouth (or even right on his or her arms).  Teaching the child EFT (emotional freedom technique) or doing EFT on the child can also cure the clown issue in many children. Check out online information on EFT as well as videos showing the treatment of children with phobias through EFT.

Fear of clowns that persist until adulthood, or fear that causes significant stress in a child should be referred to a mental health professional.

Tells Tall Tales

“Last week we went on this huge trip to Africa. It was great. I got to see a real live elephant. Oh, and I shook hands with a tribal leader!”

Children have amazing imaginations. They can come up with the most fantastic stories, with attention to even the smallest of details. But while storytelling is a skill to be admired, lying and spinning tales is not. Lying to friends can become so addictive an activity, that by the time children experience the negative consequences of their behavior, they might already have developed a strong bad habit.

It’s important for parents to try to understand their child’s  motivation for lying. Knowing the reasons behind the behavior can help parents find alternative, healthier ways for their child to get his or her needs met.

What are the reasons that children lie to their friends and what can parents do about it? Consider the following tips:

They Want to Make Themselves Appear More Interesting
Sometimes kids lie because it gives them attention that they enjoy from peers. An otherwise shy and boring lad can become an instant celebrity with a few embellishments to his tale. And the more lies “work,” the more tempting it is tell another make-believe story.

What can parents do? It’s important to communicate to a child that lying to get friends is actually counter-productive. At some point, other kids are going to discover that the stories are not true, and this could result in your child getting abandoned or socially ostracized. There are healthier ways of getting attention, such as starting a stimulating conversation about books read, movies seen, computer clips viewed, games played, etc. If a child’s social skills can be developed, there’ll be no need to lie to make and maintain friends. For instance, a child can be taught to share true stories or learn to respond with enthusiasm and interest to other people’s stories. A child can learn to tell the occasional joke (help your child to realize that this skill has to be limited to appropriate times and places and used only in moderation). Parents can find children’s social skills books in the library (or ask the children’s librarian for assistance). The books can be used to educate and stimulate both discussion and role-playing. In addition, there are special social skills groups for children and teens and there are also teachers and therapists who specialize in helping children develop better social skills.

They Want to Get Sympathy
Kids may also lie to friends in order to gain pity or assistance. For example, they may say that their experiencing a serious illness, or they are having difficulty in a particular task or subject. Sympathy is also a form of attention, and being able to get attention through lying makes spinning these kinds of tales very addictive.

What can parents do? Lying to get sympathy can be a sign of insecurity in a child. The sense of inferiority and helplessness may be real, requiring professional attention. A consultation with a mental health professional may be appropriate.

They Feel Ashamed
There are occasions when kids lie because they feel ashamed or embarrassed about an aspect of themselves or their family. For instance, a child who attends a school largely populated by affluent kids may feel compelled to lie about a parent’s blue collar job, the house he lives in, the car the parents drive or the so-called vacations his family takes.

What can parents do? Sometimes parents can work on building family pride in non-material ways. For instance, fostering a strong religious faith has given many families a strong identity, community membership and sense of confidence. Also, taking steps to help children feel self-confident in general will help combat feelings of inadequacy or shame. Follow the 80-20 Rule, giving your child 80% good-feeling communications like praise, affection, humor and empathy –  and strongly limiting criticism and anger. A home filled with laughter and love can certainly contribute to a child’s sense of wholeness and inner stability. Of course, some children are simply insecure by nature even though their parents are generous with positive feedback and affection. If children are suffering from intense feelings of inadequacy for any reason, professional treatment can help foster greater self-acceptance and personal confidence.

Learning Disabilities and Self-Esteem

Because they have more difficulty in school compared to other kids, children with learning disabilities (LDs) sometimes start to question their own intelligence and competence. Their self-esteem can suffer, despite the fact that they usually have normal or even very high intelligence as measured on standard instruments.  In fact, a learning disability is defined as a SPECIFIC deficit in one or two areas of functioning (i.e. math and reading) despite overall normal (or even higher)  intelligence. However, children typically experience a great deal of failure and frustration before they end up being officially diagnosed with a learning disability. It is often during this period of not knowing what the problem is that kids are particularly vulnerable to developing low self-esteem.

However, even after diagnosis there are many threats to the child’s self-concept: there’s the anger, self-pity and a sense of helplessness that comes from having to work harder than peers, or from needing to be isolated in special learning situations (remedial teachers, classrooms or schools), or having to endure after-school tutors and lessons. Despite all the interventions and efforts, many children with learning disabilities will never do as well as their peers in their weak areas. Moreover, some kids with severe learning disabilities will not be able to keep up with or join in certain activities because of their deficits and this exclusion, too, can contribute to low self-esteem.

In addition, not all people are sensitive or affirming when they relate to children with disabilities. Some kids can be downright cruel, teasing children with special needs or even bullying them. Parents and teachers may also unconsciously communicate low expectations, and may unintentionally send the message that they don’t see the child as capable.

A Predictor of Success
However, since healthy self-esteem is a key ingredient for attaining  success in life, it is important that parents do what they can to help their learning disabled child acquire a positive self-concept.

Studies have consistently shown that if kids with LDs consider themselves as capable and confident, they do better in all areas of life. Moreover, they are less likely to fall into mental health issues associated with LDs, such as depression or anxiety.

Define the Term “Learning Disability”
A learning disability is a condition, not a trait. In this way, it is similar to diabetes or asthma. Helping your child know that he or she is normal but has a condition, can go a long way to keeping that youngster’s self-esteem intact. There are books for children that explain learning disabilities; seeing the condition described in a book can also help kids realize that this is something outside of themselves that they must deal with, but it does not define all of who they are. Children often misunderstand the term “learning disabilities,” thinking that it means that they can’t learn! This erroneous idea can affect their performance across the board. Instead of just having difficulty in one or two areas, a child with this misconception can do poorly in every area simply because he believes he is intellectually handicapped. It is very important for parents to spell out the specific disability and to highlight the child’s learning strengths. For instance, a parent might say, “your brain has trouble recognizing and remembering letters (this is called ‘dyslexia’)and so you have to work harder to be a fast reader. But in every other way, your brain works perfectly and you are actually very smart. So this means that you should find it easy to do your arithmetic, art, gym, music, science and most of your other subjects. You can can also be awesome on the computer and in sports. And because you’re so smart, you will be able to figure out how to help your brain remember the letters and you will become a good reader – it will just take a bit of work. But we’re going to provide you with extra help so it will be even easier.”

In addition, parents should focus on their child’s areas of natural strength and competency. If the child is a talented musician, artist, cook, computer whiz or whatever, parents can highlight the child’s gift and smarts in these areas. Parents can try to expose their child to as many different activities as possible in order to help the child find areas of competency. For instance, if you don’t invite the child into the kitchen to prepare dessert for the family, neither you nor the child will ever know that cooking is his natural talent! In addition to skills, LD kids also have commendable traits such as determination, compassion or courtesy. Giving positive feedback to character and behavior is another way to boost the child’s self-esteem.

Let Them Contribute
Assume that the child is competent unless the child proves otherwise. Therefore, treat your learning disabled child as a full fledged member of the family with all “voting” privileges and responsibilities. Parents can help their child feel normal by holding them to normal expectations and standards. Offer compensation only when the child’s LD is actually affecting task performance. For instance, kids with learning disabilities can fold laundry as well as anyone else, so don’t let them off the task. However, a particular child with LD may have more trouble running errands due to the difficulty of handling money. This doesn’t mean that the child shouldn’t be allowed to go to the corner store. It might mean, however, that you help him with this task by explaining what to expect in the way of change, showing him what the financial transaction is going to look like or otherwise “tutoring” him through the task.

Use Emotional Coaching
By naming a child’s feelings, parents can help boost the child’s self-esteem and overall emotional intelligence. Naming a feeling lets the child know that he is O.K., his feelings are normal and acceptable and he has emotional support. Thus, when the child is struggling with a difficult task, a parent can acknowledge “It’s hard! It’s frustrating to try that again and again and still not get the answer!” It is hard to believe how powerful a simple acknowledgment of the child’s feelings can be. Moreover, a large body of research shows that just naming feelings helps the child do better academically, behaviorally, socially and emotionally.

Bad Self-Image

Have you ever visited the “mirror room” in a circus? You know, the one where there are many different kinds of mirrors, each one reflecting an unreal and exaggerated version of the viewer, making the person look so much taller, smaller, fatter or skinnier than he or she really is?

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD, every day is like staring into a circus mirror. Except, people with the condition don’t realize that what they are seeing is a distortion – they believe their distorted reflection is real. They consider themselves physically flawed, although no one else would agree with this assessment. They preoccupy themselves about a perceived flaw in one or more of their features or body parts — their nose is too big, their eyes too small, their skin too light or too dark. They feel ugly — both from the inside and out.

While most people have some issues with their appearance — indeed, the beauty and fashion industry preys on our insecurities — the obsession about perceived physical flaws among those with BDD is excessive. In fact, most of their perceived flaws simply don’t exist, or if they do, they are barely noticeable. However, sufferers are absolutely convinced that they are deformed or ugly and feel shamed just by being in the presence of other people; they are often so anxious that they can’t work or enjoy life. Some are so intent on fixing their imperfections that they risk multiple surgeries and unproven treatments.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder often comes with other mental health conditions like clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse control disorders like trichotillomania, anxiety disorders and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

What causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
BDD is more common than most people realize; it is believed to affect 2 in every 100 members of the population. It is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults, mainly because it is during these times that the pressure to present a “beautiful” front is most intense.

A family history of BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorders increases the likelihood of the condition developing in a person. This implies that BDD has an organic origin, such as chemical imbalance in the part of the brain that controls emotions and habits. Traumatic experiences, like physical and sexual abuse, can also trigger Body Dysmorphic Disorder in those who have the genetic vulnerability for it.

What Are the Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
The following are some of the signs parents should look out for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive pre-occupation with physical appearance
  • A pervasive belief that one is ugly or unattractive despite assurances and evidence to the contrary
  • A feeling of shame or self-loathing related to one’s body
  • Frequent examination of the body parts they consider as flawed
  • Eating disorders
  • Use of many cosmetic products or procedures, exercise regimens, with no pleasure at results
  • Social withdrawal or social anxiety
  • Inability to function because of preoccupation about appearance

What Can Parents Do?
If you see signs that a child or teen may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. The obsessive-compulsive nature of the illness, as well as the pervasiveness of the perceptual disturbance make simple assurances ineffective. Counseling, therapy and medication are known to help. If the illness is accompanied by dysfunctional eating and exercise habits, then the help of a medical doctor, eating disorders specialists or psychiatrist will also be helpful.

Anxious in Social Situations

Does the thought of giving a class presentation keep your child awake at night? How about the idea of introducing him or herself to strangers? Does your child obsessively worry about what others might say, and whether he or she will be liked? Or is he or she afraid to make social arrangements? If the answer to any of the above is yes, consider the possibility that your child has some level of social anxiety.

What is Social Anxiety?
As the term implies, social anxiety is the experience of discomfort, worry or fear when in the real or imagined presence of other people. Situations where one has to introduce and present one’s self, initiate and maintain conversation, or put oneself up for scrutiny and critique, trigger unease and concern in the person with social anxiety. Anxiety reactions can range from mild to severe – from just feeling nervous to deciding to avoid all social situations altogether.

Is Social Anxiety Normal?
Moderate social anxiety is a normal and common human condition. You yourself have probably worried at some point in your life about what others would think of you, or how strangers, friends and loved ones would react to you. In fact, social anxiety might be construed as a sign of a child’s growing appreciation of another person’s point of view and the natural stresses of relating with other people. After all, judgment is real and the consequences of rejection are also real. A bit of social anxiety can be considered healthy in that it is a realistic appreciation of the possible risks and costs of social interaction. It might even keep us in line, enhancing self-control and self-regulation (so as not to make fools of ourselves!) The trick is to manage moderate social anxiety so that it doesn’t get in our way or in the way of our children.

There are some self-help strategies that can help adults and children reduce normal levels of social anxiety. Practicing social skills can help. Parents can bring home some library books for their children on social skills and good manners. These can provide concrete strategies that will build confidence. Enrolling in drama class may increase social confidence as a child learns how to “act” social. Taking social skills classes from a professional social skills teacher can also be helpful.

There are also strategies geared to managing anxiety symptoms. For instance, before meeting new people, giving a presentation or attending a party, a person of any age can take “Rescue Remedy” (a Bach Flower Remedy available at health food stores and online). Rescue Remedy helps turn off “butterflies,” rapid heart-beat, sweaty palms and other symptoms caused by the release of adrenaline (the body’s panic and anxiety chemical). A few drops in a glass of water, sipped slowly, can restore a sense of calm. Similarly, preparing for the event by using EFT (emotional freedom technique – a self-help tool that turns off the adrenaline response) can be really helpful. There are lots of on-line resources for learning EFT. If a child or adult suffers from chronic social anxiety, he or she can use Bach Flower Remedies to heal the self-conscious tendency. Either visit a Bach Flower practitioner for a specially blended mixture of the remedies, look online for descriptions of each remedy, or simply experiment with a mixture of Rock Rose, Mimulus, Larch and Cerato (remedies that address common underlying reasons for the anxious feelings). If you choose to mix your own remedies, simply add 2 drops of each remedy to a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle (available where Bach Flower Remedies are sold) that has been filled with water. Add one teaspoon of brandy to preserve the mixture in the bottle. Take four drops four times a day until the anxiety is no longer an issue. If it returns, repeat the treatment. Repeat as often as necessary until the anxiety no longer returns.

Consider Social Anxiety Disorder
While feelings of social nervousness and self-consciousness can fall within the normal range, there are also social fears that are much more intense and problematic. When social anxiety causes severe distress or interferes with functioning at work, school or socially, then it may be a manifestation of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)  – a serious mental health disorder. The anxiety experienced by a person with SAD can be so extreme that the person has difficulty  working outside his own home environment or going to school and he or she may be unable to establish friendships or intimate partnerships.

Social Anxiety Disorder requires assessment and treatment by a mental health professional. A psychiatrist can prescribe anti-anxiety medication that may provide relief. Psychologists may set up cognitive-behavioral interventions or other interventions aimed at reducing and managing anxiety. A child with social anxiety should be seen by a child psychologist or pediatric psychiatrist. Parents who see that their child is overwhelmed by social anxiety can have the child’s pediatrician or doctor make a referral to a mental health professional for assessment.

Unsettled After Death, Divorce or Other Trauma

Although most of us wish that children could be sheltered from the pain in life, the reality is that many youngsters endure real trauma during their developmental years. One of the more common forms of modern trauma is the breakup of the family. Divorce is certainly hard for the adults who go through it but it can actually be traumatic for children – because of the loss of contact with a beloved parent, because of conflict that accompanies it, or because of life changes such as moving away from friends and family, acquiring a “step family” and so on. Death of a parent is another, usually traumatizing, experience that many children endure. But many children endure all kinds of other traumas that are less spoken about such as the serious illness and/or death of a sibling, family violence or chronic, intense conflict, addictions or mental illness within the family and much, much more. Children react to these kinds of intense stresses differently from adults. In fact, parents may not even realize that the child is suffering, since one of the common ways that kids handle overwhelming stress is to “act normal!”

If there has been intense stress in your child’s life, consider the following tips:

No Reaction is a Reaction
Suppose your friend was a passenger in a car that experienced a serious collision. The driver and two other passengers were instantly killed. The car was demolished, blood was everywhere, four firetrucks, 3 ambulances and 5 police vehicles were on the scene within minutes. Your friend miraculously escaped unharmed. Over the next days, weeks and months, this friend went about his or her business as if nothing at all had happened. He or she ate well, continued to joke around and enjoy life, never spoke about the accident and just went on very much “as normal.” Wouldn’t you find that a bit strange?

This is exactly the way many children respond to traumatic events in their lives. Instead of registering the pain and acting it out, they appear on the outside to be completely fine. What has probably happened, however, is that the overwhelming pain has been dissociated – cut off from the child’s conscious awareness. It is stored somewhere where the child can’t feel it just yet. It may surface years or even decades later, as more life stress builds up and eventually triggers it. Sometimes, it remains mentally dissociated for a lifetime, but expresses itself through the body in various forms of physical disease. The reason that children dissociate in this way is that they don’t have the emotional or intellectual resources to assimilate the experience. In other words, they just can’t handle it at the time it is happening.

If it appears that your child is not affected by a traumatic event, in reality he is quite likely affected! However, you can help. First of all, make sure that YOU are talking about the events. Some parents think, “why rock the boat? If my kid isn’t bothered by the tragedy, I’m sure not going to mention it!” Or, parents think to themselves, “the child is too young to understand or care about what is happening. There is no need to discuss it with him or her.” This is exactly the opposite of a helpful response. The child is likely to assume that the incident or events CANNOT be spoken about because they are way too terrible. On the other hand, when parents talk about what is happening and name their own feelings about it, they help children to take in the experience as a legitimate part of life and they help the child learn that his or her feelings about it are normal, expected, healthy and welcome. For instance, suppose a family suffers a crib death of their new baby. The mother can approach their children aged 4 and 6 and say something like, “It is so sad for all of us that our baby died. Daddy and I are so sad right now. You might be feeling that way too. We’re also confused. It’s hard to understand how this happened so suddenly; the baby was healthy just yesterday! You must also be feeling confused. We will all be thinking about this for quite awhile. Eventually, the pain will go away and we’ll all be happy again.” Parents can include any spiritual beliefs that they hold and want to provide their kids with at times of tremendous stress and upheaval.

Physical Reactions
While children may not be able to express their shock and pain in words, they may be able to feel it in their bodies. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu’s can all increase as an aftermath of intense stress. Play therapy can help children who are “somatizing” (sending emotions through their physical bodies) and talking therapies can help older kids and teens in the same way. Once emotions are acknowledged, physical complaints often subside.

Sleep Issues May be a Reaction
A child may have trouble sleeping through the night or sleeping alone in his or her bed. Or, the child may have trouble falling asleep or may suffer from nightmares. This may be part of a larger syndrome of Acute Stress Disorder (that happens as a trauma is occurring or within the month following) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (that happens more than a month after traumatic events have ended) or Chronic Stress Disorder (the effects of ongoing stress such as living with family violence or addiction or other deeply disturbing issues).

Psychotherapy will help the child clear out the feelings of stress. This will allow him or her to have restful, normal sleep.

Anxiety and Mood Issues may be a Reaction
A child or teen may experience panic attacks, separation anxiety (always wanting to be in the presence of loved ones), increased irritability or chronic sadness. Again, when parents are able to talk about what is happening in the family, children experience fewer emotional symptoms. Sometimes, however, the child or teen may benefit most from personal counseling in order to process the events and lift the burden of stress from the mind oand body.

Misbehavior or “Acting Out” may be a Reaction
Sometimes children become rebellious, disrespectful, impulsive or otherwise poorly behaved at home and/or school in response to stress that is happening at home. Particularly if the poor behavior is a change from previous functioning, parents should consider the possibility of this being a reaction to stress. Counseling for the parents may help reduce the stress in the home and the child’s behavior may simply improve by itself as a consequence. However, some of the stress that may trigger poor behavior are not remediable by parent counseling (for instance, the death of a family member). Nonetheless, parents may benefit from counseling that can address specific behavior and emotional interventions that THEY can provide for their child at home. If these are insufficient, the child him or herself, may need some sort of counseling or behavior therapy.

Afraid to Sleep in Own Room

Kids of every age can be afraid to sleep in their own room. This can cause stress for the whole family. Parents get frustrated – especially if the child is no longer a toddler or pre-schooler. Siblings may be disturbed by the distress of the fearful child. Bedtime can be a nightly struggle and difficult experience for the child who is afraid.

If you have a child who is afraid to sleep in his or her room, consider the following tips:

Separation Anxiety is Normal in Very Small Children
Toddlers and pre-schoolers like to be near their parents at night. This doesn’t mean that they are suffering from clinical anxiety. In this age group, anxiety about being in one’s own room apart from parents, is perfectly normal. Of course, it’s annoying and inconvenient for parents! Parents would like their kids to just go to sleep quickly and easily and stay that way until the appropriate hour for waking in the morning. For very small children, this is not the most common scenario. Most young children need help settling down to sleep in their own beds and many need some sort of nighttime parental comfort as well. However, most of them outgrow these needs over time and do go to sleep happily in their own rooms.

Daytime Anxiety and Nighttime Anxiety are Related
While there are some children who are ONLY fearful at night, they are in the minority. Most kids with nighttime fears have experienced or are experiencing other fears as well. The tendency to be fearful or anxious is a genetically inherited trait. The child is not at fault for feeling afraid. He or she can’t help it! And he or she is suffering from it. The child needs YOUR help to learn to manage anxious feelings.

Saving the child from those things that he fears actually increase fear over time and causes it to spread. For instance, if a child is afraid of dogs and the parents are careful to prevent the child from ever having to deal with a dog, then the child’s fear of dogs will remain, and even intensify over time. Moreover, it is very likely that other fears will also develop. The reason for this phenomenon is that the child’s brain can never survive the fearful stimulus, since it is always avoiding that stimulus. You can’t master the fear of dogs when you are never allowed to be in the presence of dogs. What has to happen is that the child is helped to experience “survival” in the presence of a dog and this helps build confidence that dogs can be tolerated. The learning that something fearful can be tolerated allows the child to tolerate other anxiety-provoking things as well.

The trick is to HELP the child feel comfortable enough to be with the dog so that he can stay there long enough to feel he has “survived” the experience. Helping the child is a step-by-step process. For instance, the first step might be staying with the child while the child sees a dog that’s safely secured in a cage (at the pet store for instance).  A next step might be holding the dog tightly on a leash, a distance from the child who is being held by an adult. A next step, might be to bring the dog a bit closer while being held on the leash. And so on.

These same ideas can be applied to helping a child overcome fear of sleeping in his or her own bed. A gradual process is easiest on the fearful child, allowing him or her to build confidence step by step. For instance, when putting the fearful child to bed, sit on the bed or lie down with the child for a few minutes until the child is able to fall asleep. A next step might be to sit beside the child until the youngster falls asleep. A next step might be to sit by the door of the child’s room, then just outside the door of the room, then in the hallway and then somewhere else on the same floor as where the child is sleeping and, if the house has more than one storey,  then being on a different level of the house than the child.

Making it Easier for the Fearful Child
Not only does the child have to face and survive whatever he or she fears, but the child needs to feel comfortable during the process. If the child ISN’T comfortable, it is very unlikely that facing the fear will actually happen. Some children have only a minor fear of sleeping alone in their rooms. But others are intensely fearful. Those with relatively minor levels of fear, may be able to just “build up their emotional muscles” by experiencing the step-by-step parental withdrawal program described above.

However, children with intense fear may just panic as soon as the parent attempts to leave the room. Panic is an overwhelming sense of anxiety accompanied by all sorts of very uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms. Children who throw a big tantrum may actually be experiencing feelings of panic. They need help in managing such strong reactions. But what help do children receive? Keep in mind that adults have access to powerful medications to take the edge off their own anxiety. Children, on the other hand, are left for the most part to tolerate their feelings without relief.  Fortunately, there are some forms of alternative medicine that can be safe for children and that can help gently lift intense fear out of their system.

For instance, Bach Flower Remedies can gently melt away the tendency to be fearful. The remedy Aspen is suitable for fear of the dark. The remedy Mimulus is suitable for fear of separation from parents (fear of being alone). The remedy Rock Rose is good for relieving symptoms of panic. A Bach Flower Practitioner can make a remedy bottle containing the most appropriate flower remedies for your child or you can read about the remedies and choose those that you think may be helpful, or you can try any one or all of the three mentioned here. The pre-mixed remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can also help with nighttime panic. If using only one remedy, drop 2 drops of it into a bit of liquid (any kind), 4 times a day until the anxiety has lifted. If using more than one remedy, put 2 drops of each in a Bach Mixing Bottle (one ounce glass bottle sold where Bach Flower Remedies are sold in health food stores) that has been filled with water. Add a teaspoon of brandy to preserve the bottle. Give four drops four times a day until the anxiety has lifted.

Essential oils can also soothe nighttime anxiety. Consult a professional aromatherapist for a suitable preparation and dose whenever using essential oils since they are slightly medicinal. Essential oils like lavendar or chamomille might be useful.

Herbal remedies can also soothe fear. However, always consult a professional herbalist for correct herbs and dosage since these are medicinal. Teas that you can purchase ready-made in health food stores and supermarkets are likely safe for children, but of course, they are far less potent. Nonetheless, giving the child a bit of chamomille tea or “sleepy-time” teas may help calm his or her nervous system.

Homeopaths, accupuncturists and naturopaths may also be able to help.

Get Help if Necessary
Parents cannot always solve the problem themselves. If you’ve tried to help your child in various ways but nothing is making a positive difference, consult a child psychologist or other mental health professional. This person can teach your child more skills for coping with and reducing fearful feelings. With the proper help, your child WILL soon be sleeping alone in his or her own room without fear.