Friday, March 5, 2010

Sue Scheff: Is your child socially awkward?

This is a very topical subject as we are learning more about the emotional damage that bullying does to a child.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social phobia – the intense fear of being in social situations – typically begins in childhood or early adolescence and affects women twice as often as men.

Source: Connect with Kids

Socially Awkward Kids

My son is a totally different person. He used to kind of sit in the back of the class. Now, after this [group therapy], he is sitting in the front row and raising his hand and shouting out. His teachers say he is totally blossoming.”

– Jodi Gabay, Mother

Why do some children get picked on or get into arguments, while others don't? According to new research from the Rush Neurobehavioral Center in Chicago, one answer may be how your child interacts with others. It seems that some kids can't read another child's face or tone of voice or gestures, which makes it difficult to resolve conflicts.

To help their socially awkward kids, some parents are turning to experts.

Seven-year-old Gregory is often afraid to play with the other kids.

"He's got a lot of anxiety issues, and it's really hard for him to start new things," says his mom Kathie Lasky. "He feels often uncomfortable with the way that his body feels, so going into new situations often feels threatening. That makes it hard to make friends."

So once a week, Gregory comes to a new kind of class. It's group therapy for children with developmental disorders. Like Gregory, many of the kids are shy and withdrawn.

"When you want to meet somebody new, what do you do?" sings occupational therapist Susan Orloff, who leads the class.

"You wave hi! You look them in the eye! You shake hands and you say hello," she sings with the kids.

Gregory is not singing loudly enough. "I don't hear you," says Susan.

"Hi," Gregory says meekly.

"Was that loud?"

"Hi!" Gregory says slightly more forcefully.

In group therapy, the kids are asked to speak up and make eye contact with the other kids.

They play games designed to build confidence. For example, the kids are forced to give themselves a compliment.

"Mr. Gregory? What's good about you?" asks Susan.

Gregory just sits there and looks uncomfortable.

"Oh, come on now," presses Susan.

"Ah, at computers?"

"You're good at computers, that's great!"

The kids also learn what to do if they are excluded from a game.

"We're going to have to say, 'Well, maybe we'll play next time' or 'can I play in your next game?'" explains Megan, another instructor in the group.

The class lasts eight weeks. When it's done, most of these kids aren't so shy anymore.

"My son is a totally different person," says Jodi Gabay about her four-year-old son, Cody. "He used to kind of sit in the back of the class [at school]. Now, after this class, he is sitting in the front row and raising his hand and shouting out. His teachers say he is totally blossoming."

This social skills group is offered by Children's Special Services. Susan Orloff is the CEO and executive director. She runs the class at her metro-Atlanta home.

At one time or another, most of us have experienced shyness, a moment during which your heart races, your palms become sweaty and your stomach gets that fluttery, butterfly feeling. In fact, research cited in the Encyclopedia of Mental Health indicates that the percentage of self-reported shyness has escalated gradually in the last decade to nearly 50%. But what happens when that moment of shyness stretches into a continuous fear that limits a person's emotional development?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social phobia – the intense fear of being in social situations – typically begins in childhood or early adolescence and affects women twice as often as men. While many children can be shy or awkward at times, those with social phobia go beyond shyness into such an anxious state that it causes them to completely avoid interaction with others. They often experience blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, difficulty talking and even nausea when their anxiety becomes too intense for them to handle. For teens in particular, the following social situations cited by the American Academy of Family Physicians can often spark extreme bouts of shyness that go beyond a feeling of awkwardness:

■Public speaking or performing
■Making "small talk"
■Small group discussion
■Asking questions in groups
■Being introduced
■Meeting or talking with strangers
■Being assertive
■Being watched as you do something (eating, writing, etc.)
■Attending social gatherings
■Talking on the telephone
■Using public restrooms
■Interacting with "important" people
■Test taking

Tips for Parents

How can you tell if your child is merely shy or if he or she is a victim of severe anxiety? The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry warns that you should be alert to the following signs of severe anxiety in order to intervene and seek treatment for your child:

■Worries about things before they happen
■Constantly worries or becomes concerned about school performance, friends or sports
■Has repetitive thoughts or actions (obsessions)
■Experiences fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
■Has low self-esteem

If you suspect that your child experiences social phobia, consult a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental-health professional. Physicians can treat your child by helping him or her to develop coping skills to manage his or her anxiety. The Nemours Foundation cites the following treatment methods that may be used to help your child:

■One element of your child's therapy might include learning relaxation techniques, such as breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
■Behavioral rehearsal, during which the therapist and your child might role play certain situations, may be beneficial. Trying out new behaviors ahead of time can make it much easier and more automatic to put these behaviors into practice when your child is faced with real situations.
■Your child might learn to correct self-talk that is leading to anxiety by learning self-talk that is more positive and that promotes self-confidence and builds coping skills.
■Medications can be helpful as part of the treatment for your child's social phobia. Though medication doesn't solve the whole problem, it can reduce your child's anxiety so he or she can put into practice some of the techniques that are described above.

If your teen experiences shyness from time to time but can manage to cope with his or her feelings, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts offers these approaches that may help your shy teen feel better internally and function better at school:

■Build your teen's self-worth. Realizing that he or she has your confidence and trust – or even your admiration – will pump up his or her ego. Make sure your teen occasionally overhears you saying nice things about his or her personality, achievements and activities to family members and friends.
■Don't compare personalities. Accept that each member of a family has a slightly different temperament and his or her own way of dealing with the world. One teen may be extremely social and another may be just as happy to have one or two close friends and spend more time at home.
■Practice social skills. If your teen is having trouble making friends and wouldn't mind some help, coach him or her on how to ask for and listen to other people's opinions. Talk about the social situations that worry your teen the most, and brainstorm ways he or she might make himself or herself feel more comfortable. Don't, however, turn into your teen's social director. Your interference will only signal that you lack faith in him or her.
■Don't urge your teen to change. Admonishments such as "Don't be shy" or "try to be more popular" aren't going to do your teen any good or be well-received, since he or she will hear them as criticisms and can alter his or her behavior only so much. Remember, as much as you might wish it for your teen, being popular is not a goal you want to dangle in front of him or her. If your teen chooses to do things on his or her own, don't make him or her feel inadequate. Many a loner has grown up to be a brilliant inventor or talented writer. Some children aren't even lonely when they're alone. They may be shy, but they still like themselves.
■Praise your teen's strengths. A shy teen may not be comfortable enough to run for student council, but he or she might win a prize in the school science contest or be an excellent artist.

■American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
■American Academy of Family Physicians
■Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
■Encyclopedia of Mental Health
■National Institute of Mental Health
■Nemours Foundation
■Susan Orloff, O.T.R., Children's Special Services