Loner or Socially Handicapped?

Is there something wrong with a child who doesn’t like to play with friends? Or, is it possible that the child is just a healthy loner? How would a parent know if and when to intervene?

If you are concerned about your child’s lack of social life, consider the following tips:

Content vs. Discontent?
Is your child playing happily on his own? Is he busy with books, toys, computers, and other resources in the home? Is he building, creating, learning, exploring and otherwise enjoying himself? Is he acquiring new skills or engaging in productive activities? If your child is thriving in his independent activities, he may just be an introvert – someone who is energized by his own personal activities and drained by being with people. Or, it might just be that he’s had enough people for the day, having interacted with his peers at school for 8 hours or longer; now he’s ready to spend time with himself. Not a full-fledged introvert, he just has a lower need for social activity. Adults are like this too – many grownups just want to relax at home in the evening after a day of interacting in the world. In short, if your child is happy on his own, don’t worry about his behavior and don’t push him to be with friends.

Fearful or Comfortable?
If your child would like to have friends but doesn’t know how to make meaningful social connections, he might benefit from some help. Try a bit of bibliotherapy – ask the librarian for age-appropriate books on the subject of how to make friends. Talk about the subject directly or do some role-playing in order to practice various skills: making and accepting invitations, being a host, being a guest, keeping friends and so on. Also consider enlisting the help of professionals – there are social skills classes and trainers and also mental health professionals who can help. If your child actually feels fear at the idea of inviting a friend over or fear at the idea of going to a friend’s house, then accessing the help of a mental health professional is definitely recommended: there are techniques and interventions that can help your child overcome social discomfort and anxiety.

All or Nothing?
If your child has even one or two regular pals, there is no need to worry about his social life. Not everyone wants or needs a big social net. Similarly, if your child has close and warm relationships with siblings, cousins, community members or neighbors, there is no need to worry that he doesn’t have more friends. However, if your youngster has absolutely no one to connect to there is more reason for concern. Having someone to interact with and talk to is an important life skill. Again, professionals are available to help your child learn how to create at least a small social circle.

Won`t Speak to Adults or Strangers

When parents talk about improving their children’s social skills, they’re usually referring to skills in interacting with same-aged children. But truly socially-adjusted kids are those who are not only comfortable dealing with peers, but are also comfortable dealing with older children and adults too.

But what if your child refuses to speak to adults or strangers? Consider the following tips:

Who is a Stranger?
It is appropriate for children to be wary of strangers and there is certainly no need for them to interact with complete strangers when they are alone. However, kids have to know how to approach even a total stranger for help when help is needed – i.e. someone has been injured or lost or is otherwise in trouble. It’s not practical to tell a child to find a police officer since police officers aren’t always handy; sometimes the child will have to ask a regular adult for assistance. Advising children to search out a sales clerk in a store or a mother with children may be a good opening strategy. If neither is available, however, children should be advised to look for other outer signs of respectability in a strange adult – type of clothing, companions and other “safety features.” Don’t assume that your child knows all these  things – take time to give examples and spell out details. When out and about, point out the kind of people that seem most trustworthy for emergency-only interactions, as well as the kind of people you feel it would be best to avoid if possible. While providing this education, make sure to point out that almost all people are kind to children and most strangers are very normal, respectful people. Moreover, let your children know that just because someone wears a nice suit doesn’t mean that he is a good person and just because someone has an unusual hair style doesn’t mean that he is dangerous. Looking for conservative appearance is only one small step a child can take toward ensuring his or her safety.

Apart from life-and-death issues and other safety concerns, kids should be encouraged to talk to adults when they are with you or other caregivers. Naturally shy children will need your help in developing social skills. Explain exactly what you want them to do – i.e. smile, say “hello” and possibly shake hands. Offer generous positive feedback when your child makes efforts to behave appropriately and avoid criticism. Speaking to adults on the phone can be part of the training process. Take time to teach the skills: use a pleasant tone of voice, say “hello,” and “one moment please” or ask the person “could you please hold on?” and so on. Be patient with your youngster, allowing him or her to build up confidence and skill through practice over time.

Is Your Child Feeling Intimidated by Adults?
A child whose teachers and parents are low-key, warm, friendly people tends to have less fear of adults than one whose teachers and parents tend to be strict disciplinarians. If your child is overly intimidated by adults, it could be that he or she is just very timid by nature but it might also be that you have accidentally (or purposely!) instilled a little too much fear. Keep in mind that kids turn out healthiest when they are raised by warm, loving parents who impose a comfortable amount of structure and rules. Following the 80-20 Rule as described in the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice will achieve the desired effect.

Does Your Child Need Time to Warm Up?
You can’t just introduce your child to a stranger and then expect him or her to immediately jump into conversation. Kids usually like to feel their way into a conversation, making tentative remarks and openings that can eventually lead down a fruitful path. Moreover, it’s important not to push a child to speak when he or she clearly feels uncomfortable. If a child holds onto your skirts, let him for the time being but make a note to practice social skills (see above) later. Do not mock or criticize your child for the way he or she acts around people. If your child tends to be shy during the first hello, be patient. Establishing rapport takes time; allow your child to go at his own pace. Say nothing at the time – and be particularly careful not to comment on his or her quiet behavior IN FRONT of another person – and then provide help later.

Child Refuses to Talk to Adults at All
There are some children who simply won’t talk to adults outside their immediate family members. This can include their teachers, doctors, neighbors and others. They might be suffering from Selective Mutism, a psychological disorder in which a child is capable of speaking but absolutely refuses to do so.

Children with selective mutism may speak to other children but refuse to speak to adults or, in some cases, refuse to speak to certain kinds of adults (like men or people in positions of authority). Sometimes kids refuse to speak in public (i.e. school or other areas outside the home) to both children and adults. For instance a child with Selective Mutism in the classroom may not speak at all to her friend, but if that same friend is invited to her house for a play-date, she will speak to her completely normally.

Selective Mutism is diagnosed and treated by speech and language pathologists and mental health professionals. If you believe your child may have Selective Mutism, do consult a speech and language pathologist or child psychologist with experience in assessing and treating Selective Mutism (you can ask your pediatrician for a referral).

Natural Treatment for Stress Relief

Bach Flower Remedies are one-ounce bottles of specially prepared water (see below for details). Although they are only water, they can affect the way people feel emotionally. In fact, they can help balance emotions so that a person can release stress, upset, hurt, anger, fear, sadness, irritation, jealousy, impatience  and any other distressed emotion. Indeed,  many people report that they have successfully used Bach Flower Remedies to feel calmer, sleep better, worry less, recover faster from upset and heartache, handle parenting stress and work stress better and so on. Many have also reported that they were able to see a reduction in their child’s tantrums, aggressive behaviors, moodiness  or fears because of the use of the remedies.

But the remedies can do even more than help a transitory bad feeling : they can also help correct the tendency to fall into those feelings in the first place. When the remedies are used to treat a chronic emotional issue (like a tendency to be stubborn or a tendency to be explosive), they might actually be assisting in a processes now referred to as  “epigentic healing” – the healing of the gene that leads one to experience chronically negative emotional states. We now know that genes can be turned on and off and this is what appears to be happening when someone takes a long course of Bach Flower Therapy. This means that a child who tends to be very shy can take the remedies over time to reduce the shy tendency altogether. The Bach Flowers do not change personality, however. What they do is enable a person to be their own best self. A very strong-willed, obstinate child will retain his strength of character but instead of just being difficult to live with he will be his best self: a born leader, a confident person, one who can take appropriate action. When the Flower Remedies help a childhood overcome chronic separation anxiety, they leave the child’s personality intact: it is the same youngster without debilitating fear blocking the expression of his true self.

It’s hard to believe that these little remedies can work and it’s best not to even TRY to believe that they will; rather, just try the remedies yourself and observe how you feel while taking them. Or, offer a remedy to your child and observe the child’s behavior over the next days and weeks to see if there is any difference. Bach Flowers sometimes seem to have a dramatically positive effect on both behavior and mood and other times seem to make little difference. (Of course, there is no medical or psychological treatment either that works equally well for every single person who employs it.) In the latter case, it might be that the wrong mix of remedies is being used, but it can also be that a longer period is necessary before change will occur or even that a particular person is not responsive to the remedies at the particular time that they are being offered (i.e. this could change in the future). It can also be that while the Bach Flowers are having some positive effect, a complete treatment  requires other interventions as well including strategies like nutritional support, exercise, psychotherapy and/or medicine.

How are Bach Flowers Prepared and Used?
Dr. Edward Bach, a prominent physician in Britain who died in 1935, was interested in preventative medicine. In his search for something that could boost the immune system to ward off disease or to help the body recover more quickly and thoroughly from illness, he discovered a water-based method of healing that became known as “Bach Flower Therapy.” Modern physicists use principles of quantum physics to explain how water remedies can affect human emotions. Dr. Bach, however, understood the remedies on a purely intuitive level. He felt their effects and he could see what they were able to do to effectively relieve stress and emotional distress.

Bach Flower Remedies are prepared by taking the head of a certain flowering plant and placing it in a clear bowl of pure water. The water is heated in sunlight or on a stove for several hours (depending on which flower is being used) and then the flower is removed. The water is the remedy. It is bottled (and preserved with a bit of grape alcholol) and – in our times – sold in health food stores throughout the world as well as on-line.

Bach Fower Remedies are a form of vibrational medicine, not herbal medicine. They are NOT medicinal. They do not act on the body at all. They don’t interact with other medicines or foods or health conditions or anything. They are the same as water is to the system. However, if someone cannot have even a minute amount of alcohol in their system, they should look for the newer remedies that are made using glycerin instead. In general, however, anyone can safely use Bach Flower Remedies – babies, children, teens and adults, pregnant women and elderly people. Even plants and animals respond well to the Bach Flowers!

How Does One Take Bach Flowers?
If a person is using only one of the 38 remedies, they can take 2 drops from the remedy bottle in a small amount of liquid. They should do so 4 times a day – morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

However, most people take anywhere from 2 to 7 remedies that have been mixed together in a “mixing bottle.” To prepare a mixing bottle, one places water in a glass bottle with a glass dropper – generally a  30 ml  (1oz.) amber bottle. (These bottles are sold wherever Bach Flower Remedies are sold and they are called Bach Mixing Bottles.) Then one adds 2 drops from each desired remedy bottle. If a person was using 7 remedies, they would be adding 14 Bach Remedy drops to their mixing bottle. To ensure that bacteria does not grow inside of the mixing bottle, a teaspoon of brandy or apple cider vinegar should be added to the bottle.

This Bach Flower Remedy Mixture is then taken, 4 drops at a time, in hot or cold liquid, with or without food. Ideally, these 4 drops are taken 4 times a day, for a total of 16 drops daily. A person takes them in the morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

Adults can put 4 drops of their Bach Flower mixture into coffee, tea, water, juice, soup or any other liquid. Children can take their drops in water, chocolate milk, juice, cereal or any other beverage.

A person takes their mixture until they start forgetting to take it and they no longer need it. (Or, parents give a mixture to a child until the child’s behavior or mood issues have resolved to the point where the parent is now forgetting to give it to the child)  If symptoms return (and they most likely will), the person starts taking the remedy again. In fact a person may end up using the remedy off and on for a year or two (less time in children) before the problematic tendency  disappears completely.

How Does One Know Which Remedies to Use?
Dr. Bach wanted to keep his healing method very simply. A person should be able to read the description of the 38 remedies and decide which ones he needs. Of course, some people feel that they need all 38! However, no more than 7 should be used at a time.

A person could pick up a book on Bach Flower Remedies and decide which flowers they need based on the description of who the remedy is for and what it can do. Also, most health food stores have a pamphlet that explain what the remedies can too. Alternatively, a person can make an appointment with a Bach Flower Practitioner who will be pleased to help them design a remedy for themselves or their child.

Reducing Stress at Family Gatherings

While the idea of happy family gatherings is heartwarming, the reality of these get-togethers is more complex. Family gatherings can be fun or they can be stressful. They can be uplifting or maddening – or they might be a little of everything! It all depends on who is in the family and how you feel about them. Family members are people who are thrown together by birth and marriage; they are not like friends we have carefully chosen. These are people we must deal with whether we like them or not. Quite often, there are difficult people included in the group who may have caused us pain and aggravation. Usually, there is one or more person who has hurt us and disappointed us and there are some others who are just plain annoying.  Fortunately, there are also likely to be some who we truly enjoy being around. All of these “loved ones” come together for family celebrations and holidays to enjoy feelings of closeness and community.

Let’s look at some tips for minimizing stress and increasing the pleasure of these gatherings.

Family Relationships are Important to Kids
Children are nourished by family gatherings. The extended circle of love makes them feel secure in a world which is often fragmented and isolated. The ritual celebration of holidays brings a sense of stability and meaning to the child’s world. If your children are going to experience the family scene, you can help to make it as positive as possible for them by keeping your negative thoughts to yourself. Children do not benefit from hearing how you can’t stand the sight of Uncle Joe or how you will not be talking to Cousin May. If you have any conflicts with any family members, try to keep them under wraps for the duration of the gathering. Kids don’t have to know all of your business. Even if YOU don’t like a certain family member, you can still allow your child to enjoy that person’s company. (If you think that anyone is a threat of any kind to your child’s well-being, either don’t invite the person or don’t allow your child to attend the event).

Prepare Kids in Advance
Let your children know what you expect of them in advance. If there are rules you wish to establish (no yelling, running, cursing, grabbing or whatever), tell them before the gathering. You can also warn them that there will be negative consequences AFTER the gathering if they misbehave. Try very hard not to discipline children during a gathering as the embarrassment they feel can harm them. Of course, you’ll need to be realistic too – children who are seeing their cousins and other relatives can get over-excited and a bit wild. From their point of view, they may be having the time of their lives. Simply remind them quietly to settle down if necessary.

Do Not Disturb the Festive Atmosphere
Refrain from anything that might contribute to tension at the gathering. Don’t talk about “hot” topics. Don’t correct your spouse in public. Don’t criticize anyone or anything. Don’t argue with a relative about anything – it isn’t worth it. Your job is to keep the gathering upbeat and positive. This is a party! Keeping it this way is your gift to your children.

Teenagers are Independent
Often, teens go through a period where they don’t want to attend family gatherings. Usually this is temporary. Once they have found a life partner or  have kids of their own, they’ll be very interested in family gatherings again. Meanwhile, you can ask your teens to please attend for a short while and then allow them to go to do their own activities whether that involves leaving the house to be with their own friends or going to their own rooms to pursue their own activities. If your teen really doesn’t want to come for even 5 minutes, don’t push it; this may change by the next gathering or over the course of the next few years. As long as you report having a great time, the door remains open for your teen or young adult to join you on another occasion. If your adolescents are happy to attend the gathering – that’s great! You might even put them to work! At this age, they can help with serving and clearning or table setting or whatever. Try to listen to their ideas and suggestions and implement them, giving them a voice in how things will be set  up, arranged or conducted. This can help them “own” the scene and enjoy it even more. If you are at another relative’s home, encourage your teens to offer their assistance. This is sure to earn them positive feedback, helping them to feel important in the family scheme of things. But don’t over do it – a few minutes of helping is all that is necessary. Let your teens just relax and talk to people. Welcome them in joining the “grownups” in more adult conversation if they show an interest to be there. If they want to hang with the young people, be careful not to correct them or criticize them in front of others. No warnings not to drink too much and so on – do all of that in private before you get to the party. This is not the time to be “parental.” Just smile and wave!  By treating your teens as if they are no longer little kids, you can help them become “young ladies and gentlemen” within the family context – you are promoting them to the next level. When they experience their enhanced status, they are more likely to want to attend future gatherings.

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.

When to Get Involved in Your Child’s Social Life

Everyone has social challenges – even adults! It’s not surprising then, that kids have plenty of social issues. Sometimes they fight with others, sometimes others fight with them. Sometimes they are bullied. Sometimes they are rejected. Often, they experience some kind of shyness, insecurity or even social anxiety. Kids form cliques; there’s the in-crowd and the out-crowd. There’s peer pressure to contend with. The challenges are endless! Parents often worry about their kids, naturally wishing to save them from the pain that can be caused by social problems. When should parents step in? When should they stay back?

If you’re not sure whether or not to get involved in your child’s social life, consider the following tips:

Consider Whether or Your Child Does or Does Not NEED Your Help
Saving your child from pain is not the only consideration you should have. Keep in mind that a little pain is tolerable for children and it might even be a useful source of learning and positive development. Instead of rushing to rescue your child from a difficult social situation, ask yourself whether or not your child is able to rescue him or herself. How old is your youngster? Two year olds usually have limited resources. If a bigger child is teasing them or – worse – hurting them, they are sure to need adult intervention. On the other hand, if another two year old is not being nice to them, it is possible that they can find ways to defend themselves or solve the problem on their own (i.e. move away or frighten the offender). Similarly, older kids can usually learn to handle everyday difficulties perpetrated by their same-age peers. Being bullied, however, is a different story. When there is a serious emotional or physical threat, adults usually do need to step in.

If you feel that your child lacks the skills to solve a social problem, it’s preferable to provide the skills rather than to solve the problem for her. For instance, suppose your 10 year-old daughter is the only girl in the class who has not been invited to a classmate’s sleepover party. Your child is devastated. You might be tempted to call the classmate’s mother and let her know how your daughter feels. However, why not help your daughter to tackle the problem herself? She can either speak to the girl directly or write a brief note. For instance, “Dear Sue, I know that you are having a sleepover party and have invited everyone in the class except me. I know that you and I are not really friends, but I don’t think we are enemies either. If I had a party, I would invite you if I was inviting everyone else. I know you are a good person and you would never purposely hurt anybody. I’m sure you did not realize how much this would embarrass me and hurt my feelings. I haven’t spoken to anyone about it. I am wondering if you could change your mind and invite me to the party. I would be happy to bring some snacks along for all the girls and I would really be so grateful to you for including me. Sincerely, Tanya.” If “Sue” doesn’t change her mind, then you would help your child come to terms with the fact that there are mean people in the world. You would help her to learn from this how important it is to include everyone.

Helping your child find a way to deal with a social challenge is appropriate when your child has the necessary communication skills (like the ability to write a short letter). A younger child will need more of your help and often, more parent-to-parent intervention. A teenager can almost always be taught what to do and do it by him or herself.

Choosing Your Child’s Friends
Children choose their own friends. However, parents can make introductions. Parents often move into a specific neighborhood or choose a specific school in order to provide certain kinds of friends for their kids. Parents may also make play-dates for toddlers, preschoolers and other very young children. However, children decide who they like and don’t like. This poses a challenge for parents as the kids get older. Some children choose friends that their parents don’t approve of. Sometimes, parents feel that a particular child is having a bad influence on their own child. In such cases, parents often attempt to discourage the friendships in one way or another – sometimes even forbidding associations out of school. The problem with this approach is that forbidden relationships are all the more tempting. Moreover, it’s not the child’s fault that he or she is drawn to the wrong crowd. Preferences for people are made at the subconscious level; something draws a child to another person or group of people. If you think that your child is making poor choices, try to help your child’s inner world. The healthier a child is psychologically, the healthier choices he or she will make in friends. To bolster your child’s psychological health, make sure you follow the 80-20 Rule (See Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe) – or the 90-10 Rule for teens. This ratio ensures that you have a positive, warm, loving relationship with your child and this is very conducive for your child’s emotional health. Reduce anger and criticism to nearly zero! The more your child likes you and identifies with you, the more he or she will choose friends that YOU would approve of.  If you feel that you must forbid a particular social connection, then make sure you explain exactly why to your child. Make sure that your child experiences your love, rather than your controlling side. For instance, instead of “I absolutely forbid you to see Terry again.” try, “I know how much you enjoy being with Terry. However, I have to ask you not to spend any more time with Terry because you are learning things that can get you into serious trouble. I feel that I have to help you stay away from this person and if I find that you are spending time with Terry, you and I will have to talk about negative consequences. I hope that you know how much I love you and I hope that by now, you trust my judgment.” When you have a good relationship with your child (which is why the 80-20 Rule is vital), you have much more power to influence your child’s choices.

If Your Child Mismanages Friendships
Sometimes you may feel that your child is mishandling a social relationship. You want him or her to strengthen a friendship but your child seems to be careless, not bothering to treat the friend properly. You worry that the child will lose the friend; perhaps you even lose sleep over it. It’s fine for parents to offer their child information. For instance, go ahead and talk to your child about how friendships are built and maintained. Explain your concerns about his or her current behavior. However, be mindful not to repeat yourself. Assume that your child heard you the first time! If your child does not choose to heed you advice and, as a consequence, loses the friendship, he or she will know better for next time. No matter who this friend is, he or she is NOT the only human left on the planet. Your child can make other friends. Even if this particular person was an excellent kid, the best you could hope for in a child’s friend, keep in mind that there are other good kids out there. You simply cannot control your child to the extent that you run his or her social life. Instead of trying to do so, give your “normal” child credit where credit is due: he or she can learn to build relationships in his or her own good time.

Sometimes, parents find themselves worrying far into the night about their child’s friends and relationships. In this case, professional consultation might help to determine whether there really is something to worry about and if so what sort of interventions and strategies might be helpful.

Fear of Strangers

Around 5 or 6 months of age, many babies begin to develop a fear of strangers. This fear tends to peak in intensity between 8 and 10 months and then gradually diminishes by around 15 or 16 months. However, some toddlers remain somewhat afraid of strangers and some may appear shy all the way through childhood. The amount of fear of strangers that a baby or child experiences depends mostly on that youngster’s genes. A child with loving parents and patient caretakers can be very fearful of strangers just because he or she is a fearful child in general. On the other hand, a child may be extremely friendly to everyone even during the peak “stranger anxiety” phase simply because he or she has inherited an extroverted, people-loving, confident nature.

Stranger Anxiety
Many psychologists see “stranger anxiety” as a positive developmental stage in infants. It indicates that the baby can distinguish between primary caregivers like Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Nanny and so on – and actual strangers or non-family members. This is an important skill for intimate bonding later on. The ability to really care who hugs you is healthy and a precursor for strong intimate relationships in adulthood. However, a baby needn’t demonstrate terror of strangers in order to indicate his ability to distinguish loved ones from strangers; showing a preference for loved ones is enough of an indication that Baby knows the difference. If your baby cries hard when being handed over to a stranger, however, try to see it as a positive sign, even though it is temporarily upsetting for that stranger.

Sometimes the “stranger” is Grandma or Grandpa. If the baby doesn’t see relatives on a regular basis, he or she may consider these people to be strangers. This can be insulting or hurtful for relatives. However, your job is to do what is best for the baby – not for the adult. Therefore, don’t force an upset baby to stay in the arms of a stranger just to try to make the stranger feel better. Rather, take the baby back to your own arms and tell the other person, “Baby likes to look at you from here – he’s very attached to Mommy right now. In a few months he’ll be asking for YOU to pick him up!” If the other person doesn’t like this reality, don’t worry – he or she will get over it eventually. Meanwhile, you have taught your baby that you will respond to his or her cries and meet his or her needs. This helps the baby develop trust in the environment. When the baby has lots of trust, he or she will have an easier time trusting people appropriately.

Just the Right Amount of Fear
As the baby grows, you will want him to be appropriately fearful of strangers. In other words, you don’t want your preschooler running up to strange men in the park and playing with them. You want them to feel appropriate levels of comfort with known people and appropriate levels of discomfort with unknown people. It can be tricky to teach children to have “just the right amount” of fear and not to have excessive, paranoid or insecure feelings that make them uncomfortable all the time. Here are some tips on how to “stranger proof” your child without terrorizing him or her:

  • tell your child that most adults are very nice and that it is safe to say “hello” to people who say “hello” to them. However, tell them that they don’t need to talk to adults who they don’t know beyond returning a greeting.
  • tell your child to come straight to you or their caregiver if an adult seems to want to talk to them. Just tell them that you or the caregiver needs to meet the adult first.
  • tell your child never to go anywhere with an adult they don’t know but DO NOT tell them about how adults can hurt and kill children and so on. Instead, provide adequate supervision for your very young child; do not leave small children out of your sight for even a moment.
  • when your child is a little older and is ready to go to school, explain that adults don’t need to talk to children and if an adult tries to talk to them, they should not answer, but instead quickly get themselves to a safe adult (one they know!).

As stated earlier, some children are afraid of strangers because they have a fearful nature. They just don’t like meeting new people. When introduced to an adult by their parents, they hide behind Mom’s skirt and suck their thumb (if they’re little) or stare silently (if they’re older). If your child is like this, you might try a treatment of Bach Flower Therapy. The remedies “Mimulus” and “Cerato” can be helpful. A Bach Flower Practitioner can recommend a specific mixture of remedies best suited for your child. These harmless preparations can help ease fear of people out of the child’s system over time. Social skills groups can also build up a skill repetoire that helps children feel more confident in social situations. If the fear is interfering with the child’s life, a trip to a child psychologist can help reduce anxiety and build healthy coping patterns that will serve the child well throughout life.

Anxious and Stressed Teens

Anxiety is an unsettled, restless, uncomfortable state of mind that can affect people of all ages. Anxious teens may feel worried, stressed or panicky and can experience anxious feelings occasionally or frequently, mildly or intensely. Teenagers who have a lot of anxiety – the kind that interrupts their sleep, interferes with their functioning or causes them intense stress – should be seen by a mental health professional for assessment. Anxious feelings range all the way from normal levels of stress and worry that most people experience, all the way to symptoms of bona fida anxiety disorders – it takes a professional to determine what is going on when anxious feelings are anything more than minor and occasional.

What Triggers Teen Anxiety?
The teenage years are times of high stress, hard decisions and strong emotions. Teen anxiety can be triggered by many events in the teen’s life such as a broken relationship, a parental divorce or academic pressure in school. In addition, teenagers are living in a fast-paced, constantly changing world which creates its own pressure – there is no time to be still and settle in. Social pressures are particularly intense for this age group: kids worry about fitting in, feeling accepted, developing relationships, handling peer pressure and more.

What Parents can Do to Help?
Parents can be part of the problem or part of the solution. For instance, parents can put excessive pressure on teenagers by being too disapproving, too critical or too punitive. On the other hand, they can help relieve stress by being both accepting and gently guiding. They can offer encouragement, praise and validation, keeping the parent-child relationship primarily positive in the ideal 90-10 ratio that is healthiest for this age group (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for details about building a positive relationship with teenagers). Empathetic listening, ready humor and general acceptance go a long way to helping teens feel confident and emotionally secure.

Moreover, parents can guide teens toward activities that provide stress relief such as sports, drama clubs, volunteer work, and even part-time jobs. Parents can also encourage downtime, family fun (board games, outings, hobbies) and even cooking! A short vacation or even a few hours out of the house for some one-on-one quality time can often work wonders with an adolescent. Parents can even play some relaxing music in the house to help set a calm mood. Of course, reducing family stress (no yelling, fighting, marital battles, etc.) will also help reduce teen anxiety. If parents are experiencing stress of their own, they shouldn’t share it with their teens but rather with other supportive adults.

Warning Signs
There is a difference, however, between normal levels of worry and stress and levels that would be best treated with professional help. If a parent notices the following symptoms of anxiety, he or she should discuss them with a doctor and/or ask for a referral for to a  mental health professional (preferably and adolescent specialist) for assessment:

  • Inability to follow through with usual routines  (like getting to class on time, doing homework, doing one’s household chores, keeping one’s room cleaned, grooming oneself properly and so on)
  • Compulsive thoughts (inability to stop thinking about/worrying out loud about certain topics)
  • inability to make a decision without excessive input from others
  • Peculiar habits (i.e. arranging things, checking things, excessive washing, lengthy praying, repeating words or phrases, needing excessive rituals, refusing to touch certain things, wearing gloves inappropriately, and any other strange behavior
  • Agitated behavior (shaking, inability to settle down, stay still, sleep)
  • Disturbed sleep patterns (insomnia, early waking, nightmares)
  • Strange or excessive fears or worries
  • Refusal to go certain places (like malls or parties) or be with certain people or engage in age-appropriate social activities due to anxious feelings
  • Chronic unhappy or irritable mood
  • Addictive behavior (may stem from anxiety)
  • Self-harm such as cutting oneself, picking at one’s skin (may stem from anxiety)
Anxiety Disorders
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, all of which are thought to have biological roots. GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) is a state of chronic worry about everything and anything. Panic Disorder is a focused type of anxiety that may involve panic attacks with or without fear of leaving home unattended. Simple Phobia can involve any intense fear of any one thing like fear of needles or heights or flying. Social Phobia is a type of anxiety that involves fear of being judged negatively by others. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by experiencing or witnessed a life-threatening event. OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) can occur spontaneously or after a strep infection and involves anxious thoughts and compulsive rituals. Often teens with anxiety have other disorders as well – depression, ADHD, eating disorders and addictive disorders among others. Fortunately, all anxiety disorders respond well to treatment. Today there are many treatments besides medication that are quite effective – therapies, stress-management training, meditation-based interventions, alternative treatments and more. The sooner you get help for your anxious teen, the sooner your teen will enjoy peace of mind.

Child Doesn’t Have Friends

Millions of children complain that they have no friends. Some of them are reporting an accurate state of affairs while some are reporting a feeling rather than a fact. Those that have a few friends may wish they had more and so complain about their “lack of friends.” However, some children really do not have a single good friend. They see their classmates daily, but there are no social invitations, no one to call, no one to get together with on weekends.

Why Some Children Have No Friends
Some kids lack social skills due to developmental deficits. Some kids with ADD/ADHD have social perception deficits – meaning that they do not read social cues properly and do not respond to them properly. They may enter a perfectly quiet room and start shouting boisterously without knowing why others find them annoying. Other disorders such as autism and Asperger’s are characterized by socialization difficulties like not being able to relate to the feelings of others empathetically. Some kids don’t have any specific disorder but they may be socially awkward. They may be “negativistic” – always whining or complaining. Or they may be rigid and inflexible, unable to follow other leaders or let others have their way. Or they may be poor listeners, always trying to make their own voice heard and disregarding the needs of others. Sometimes they are painfully shy or extremely passive. Sometimes they have learned these poor skills from parents who are the same way and sometimes they have just been born that way.

What Skills are Missing?
Kids need to learn how to be on the same page as the members of their peer group. They need to learn, at least to a certain extent, to dress, think and act like their peers.  Being good at the activities their peers think are important is very helpful. This can mean being good at sports (especially for boys) or being a sharp dresser (especially for girls). Kids are who brighter than the rest can still fit in as long as they find a common denominator to express. Failure to do so will get them labelled as “nerds.” If everyone in the class is collecting a particular toy, stamp or card – the child who wants to fit in should definitely have a great collection of her own!

Socially accepted kids usually have confidence, humor, generosity and some good listening skills. No one likes downcast, sullen, morbid types. Socially successful kids also LIKE other kids – they tend to be accepting rather than judgmental and critical.

Helping Kids with Poor Social Skills
Parents can help by trying to avoid doing things that destroys a child’s confidence – like being excessively critical or punitive. Parents can definitely model good social skills by speaking well of others, going out with friends, calling friends, supporting friends, reaching out to friends and so on.

Parents can help young children gain social experience by arranging play dates and supervising those get-togethers well enough to see what might be going wrong. Is a youngster too aggressive, scaring potential friends away? Teach him how to use his words. Is she too passive, preferring to play alone rather than interacting with her friend? Show her how to involve another child in the game. Some kids need to learn how to share. Others need help in being less bossy. A watchful parent and/or teacher may spot the difficulty in young children and be able to guide them into more pro-social behaviors.

School age children can be encouraged to participate in skill-building and confidence-building activities. These can help make the child a more interesting and attractive proposition in the eyes of other children. A child who is an expert gymnast, great pianist, super karkate kid and so forth is admired by others and also has the edge of a special confidence in a special talent or skill. Moreover, the busier and more productive a child is with interesting activities, the less time the child has to sit around being lonely and empty. Sometimes a parent or teacher may recognize a skill deficit. Perhaps the child has never asked anyone to come over to play. Parents can encourage risk taking and show the child how it is done. Perhaps the child doesn’t know how to be a good host or hostess when the guest finally arrives. Again, parents can explain to their child how to make others feel comfortable (offer them food, ask them what they want to do and do it, have suggestions ready for activities, be a good loser, change activities, recognize boredom and make adjustments, and so on).

For a child who really can’t make any friends, parents should consult a professional in the mental health field and/or enroll the child in a social skills training program. Everyone can learn to improve social skills. Even adults take classes in how to improve small talk, eye contact, empathy skills, listening skills and other behaviors that will make them more likeable (often for business purposes!). Kids and teens can learn these skills as well. They should be able to acquire enough skills to make at least one or two friends. They don’t have to be “popular.” A friend or two can make a huge positive change in a child’s life.