How to Cope as a Parent of a Preschooler With Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety in Preschool Children

Help your preschooler with social anxiety.
Preschool children can suffer with social anxiety. Getty / Dorling Kindersley / Ruth Jenkinson

Timothy is fearful of strangers and afraid to join other children in play.

When his mother drops him off at preschool he wails inconsolably and clings to her leg.

When he eventually settles down he spends most of his time watching other children play or interacting with the teacher.

He is afraid to join in show and tell and becomes easily upset.

Is Timothy experiencing normal childhood fears or does he suffer with social anxiety?

If your pre-school aged child displays fearful behaviors in social situations you have probably asked yourself the same question.

If anxiety and fear is extreme, it is always best to involve a mental health professional and receive an expert opinion. However, as a parent, there is much you can do to help your anxious or fearful child.

First, consider whether the behavior is typical of preschool children or not.

What is "normal", what is not?

It is normal for children to display some anxiety as they grow. This often first shows up as fear of strangers around the age of six months.

This fear can develop into separation anxiety between 12 and 18 months; the young child will become upset if separated from a parent at this age.

There are also natural differences between children in terms of how open they are to new experiences.

  • "Easy" children are generally adaptable to new situations and people and tend to remain calm and happy.
  • "Slow to warm up" children take a little longer to get used to new situations and tend to withdraw at first.
  • "Difficult" children are easily upset by new people and situations, have strong emotional reactions and poor ability to adapt.

Beyond normal childhood fears and natural differences in temperament, some children experience intense and paralyzing fear of new people and places.

If your child has severe social anxiety, she will experience distress when in those situations (such as crying, panicking or clinging) and will try to avoid the situations that cause her fear.

Some examples of common childhood fears include:

  • meeting strangers
  • joining in a group of kids
  • speaking in front of the class
  • being dropped off at preschool

Behaviors That May Signal Social Anxiety

If you aren't sure whether your child suffers with problematic social anxiety, look for the following behaviors:

  • extreme shyness
  • trouble self-soothing
  • a negative attitude toward preschool
  • onlooking behavior (watches other children but doesn't join in)

Also, pay attention to the stories that your child concocts during imaginative play. Often many of your child's fears will seep into the activities and actions of his imaginary playmates.

Why is it a problem?

You might think that eventually your child will grow out of her shyness. If it is normal childhood fears that she experiences this could be true.

However, in the case of social anxiety, inaction on your part can lead to more problems later on. It is important to consider the impact of allowing fears to grow rather than putting a stop to them early on.

Children who are extremely inhibited have been shown to be more at risk for later internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression. You might also see eventual issues coping with the social and academic demands of school.

What can be done?

There is much that can be done by parents to build confidence in anxious preschoolers. Preparing your child will enable her to better cope with the challenges of life. Below are just a few tips to help you lessen anxiety and better prepare your child for the social demands of her environment.

  1. Anxiety can be learned from parents. Model calm and confident behavior whenever possible.
  2. Give your child chances to rehearse in advance of new situations. For example, practice show and tell at home before he has to speak in front of the class.
  3. Don't be overly sympathetic. Too much sympathy teaches your child that there is something to fear, rather than showing her how to cope.
  4. Offer gentle encouragement. Encourage your child to try new things but do not force or coerce.
  5. Avoid being overprotective. Don't limit your child's exposure to fearful situations or she will learn to avoid.
  6. Do not criticize. Be a stable loving parent that your child can depend on.
  7. Watch videos or read books about confident kids. Or, point out other children who are confident and talk about what those children do.
  8. Do not give attention to fearful behaviors. Instead, praise attempts at facing difficult new situations.
  9. Be open with teachers/caregivers. Talk to those who look after your child about how best to develop social confidence. Make sure you are all working toward the same goals.

It can be difficult to know how best to help your preschool-aged child who is suffering with social anxiety.

Although you might hope that he will naturally grow out of his fears, taking proactive steps to encourage taking chances and reducing avoidance are key to preventing future problems.

If your child suffers with extreme anxiety that is interfering with daily life, you may wish to consult a mental health professional for a complete diagnosis and treatment plan.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."