Parenting is no easy task, and when you factor in managing social anxiety as a parent, the challenges can be both unique and daunting. Trying to cope with your own anxiety while trying to show up in life for your child might feel overwhelming. Attending sporting events, school functions, doctor’s appointments, play dates, birthday parties, engaging in parent-to-parent interactions, and being in crowded places are just some scenarios that are all too common in life as a parent. However, engagement in these types of situations can trigger feelings of anxiety and cause significant discomfort for those suffering from social anxiety. As a parent, you might even experience feelings of guilt stemming from inability or limited ability to participate in certain activities with your children. You might also experience worry about the impact your anxiety is having on your children. However, being a parent with social anxiety does not make you a bad or less capable parent. It just means that you have to find adaptive ways to cope with your symptoms, and reframe perceived weaknesses as strengths. Below are some things to keep in mind if you are a parent living with social anxiety.
Understand How Anxiety Can Impact Your Child’s Development
When our kids encounter new and difficult experiences, it can be hard for any parent to decide when to push them to engage, how to appropriately support their engagement, when to pull back and allow exploration, and when to allow escape or avoidance of a situation. These decisions can be even more complex for socially anxious parents because of the pull to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. It is important that children be encouraged to take healthy risks and to figure out their capabilities and preferences on their own terms. This is where management of your own anxiety is imperative, so that your anxiety does not dictate these types of parenting decisions or create limitations for your children. Parents with social anxiety likely have their own social limitations and fears, but this does not have to translate into circumscribed experiences for your children. Maybe socializing in large groups is hard for you, but you want your children to grow comfortable in these situations. Rather than declining the birthday party invitation, drop your kids off or have them attend with your spouse or other trusted adult. Be mindful not to shield your children from certain experiences, just because your own anxiety is triggered.
Be Honest and Discuss Healthy Coping Skills
Children are perceptive and observant and even if they lack the vocabulary and/or knowledge to label your anxiety, they are likely aware of your social anxiety and its various manifestations. It could be helpful to be honest with your children about your triggers and symptoms, in a developmentally appropriate manner. This may decrease your children’s worry when observing your anxiety symptoms, and help them to feel useful if they know what to do to help you calm down. Being honest about your own mental health struggles with your kids, in a way that they can understand, not only helps to de-stigmatize mental illness but also teaches them it is healthy to take charge of your mental health. In this way, parents can help model healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety, so that children can learn how to manage their own stressors as they may arise. Skills like breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, and grounding are easily taught, modeled, and practiced with your children.
Accept Your Limitations, but Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Having children who want to socialize and explore the world, will by default force you to challenge your own social anxiety in a variety of ways. Confronting triggers and countering avoidance can be adaptive in managing your anxiety, so long as you have the necessary tools to navigate these situations. Particularly if you are currently in treatment for social anxiety and have the support of a therapist, you could reframe certain social activities with your children as behavioral experiments or exposure exercises. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone within reason, and simultaneously watching your kids experience joy, may just make it all worth it.
However, there may be situations that are just too much despite your best efforts and desire to make your children happy. Acknowledging and accepting your limitations and learning what you can and cannot handle (or signs that you may be reaching your limit) is an act of self-care. In these scenarios, your options in order to take care of yourself might be to bail entirely or ask for support from a spouse or other trusted adult. Just know that either is ok.
Stay in the Moment
When feeling overwhelmed by your own anxiety in a situation, try shifting your attention from your internal experience to what is important in the moment—your kids. Try changing your narrative from “parent with social anxiety” to “parent with children, doing the best I can.” Bring yourself back to the present moment. Focusing on your kids’ experiences and enjoyment might help to provide distance from your anxiety symptoms and ride out those anxious feelings in a more tolerable way.
Focus on Your Strengths, Not Weaknesses
It is easy to believe that social anxiety and its manifestations are a weakness, rather than an asset, when it comes to parenting. Work to challenge that perception. Although parenting with social anxiety may not always be an easy endeavor, certain related traits translate into unique and invaluable skills. Learn to recognize and value these strengths. Maybe battling your own anxiety provides you with the ability to hold deeper compassion for others. Your empathy makes you better at relating to others, not worse, and you can channel your empathic powers into building healthy and caring relationships with those around you. Maybe you are more in tune to the signs of anxiety in your children and are able to normalize discussion of mental health issues because of your own experience.
Give Yourself Grace
Parenting is messy and imperfect. Trying to be a “perfect” parent is both unrealistic and unproductive. Be kind and patient with yourself, be less self-critical, and forgive yourself for not meeting your own high expectations. Keep in mind that your children will remember and cherish your investment in them, not “perfect” days or moments.
Seek Professional Help
Do not be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional if you find yourself overwhelmed and struggling. Social anxiety and parenthood can each be difficult to navigate in isolation; parenting with social anxiety can pose yet another unique set of challenges. Trained professionals are available to assist you in traversing and coping with these difficulties.
Katherine Hines, PsyD
NSAC – Pittsburgh
Cognitive Behavior Institute