Dear Dr. Debbie,
I help a lot with my nine-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troop and have noticed a wide range of differences among the girls when it comes to being comfortable in the spotlight. Although at home she can be inquisitive, imaginative, and downright witty, my daughter seems much less confident to offer her opinion, ask questions, or share her experiences in a discussion than do the others. She looks mortified when she has to be “It” in a game, and never asks for a role when they perform skits. The other girls are really nice so I don’t think she has been ridiculed in the past. Is this just the way she is or can we shore her up with some exercises?
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There is definitely a genetic component to feeling anxious in front of a group. A combination of introversion and anxiety can contribute to a paralyzing fear of having all eyes upon you.
A natural introvert prefers her own company, or maybe an audience of one, perhaps two, well-known individuals on a non-confrontational basis. In contrast, an extrovert effortlessly takes command of a room. She enjoys new people, as well as old friends, a lively debate, getting goofy or creative, and has no problem answering a question in class even while doubting the correctness of it, all without concern for being judged.
Anxiety, or “emotionality,” can be influenced by genetics as well. A child born with strong emotions may be more anxious, pessimistic, and or obsessed with distractions any time the situation calls for her to be the focus of others’ attentions. She’d rather not share her ideas since she easily finds fault with the tumble of disappointingly inadequate thoughts flitting across her mind; all of which would reveal her worthlessness to the others present.
This is not to say that your daughter is doomed to hide in the remote social corners of life. See if any of the following might just bring her out of her shell.
A Safe Distance
Spend some time with your daughter at a park or mall just people watching. Share your observations of strangers with each other, without your “subjects” overhearing of course, to increase your daughter’s catalog of information about human beings. It’s fun to guess children’s ages, whether an older couple is dating or long-married, or whether that family with several children is going out to eat before they go home. If you are people watching at a playground, predict which piece of equipment a particular child will choose to play with next. If you are near the parking area, you can make a game of guessing which cars belong to which people. The goal is to help your daughter get more comfortable with the nature of her fellow humans just by being more aware of their attributes and actions.
There is always a way to include a socially sensitive child in a group. Hopefully you and the other adults in her life have been able to offer your daughter “behind the scenes” or “teacher’s helper” roles such as setting the chairs in a circle or passing out supplies. She can often be part of the group doing something to help the other children without directly interacting with them. She might be okay with using puppets, perhaps in partners only at first. For a group performance of live actors, she might be the set changer or props manager rather than an actual actor.
Knowledge is Comfort
Social anxiety can be defined as feeling defenseless against a presumed threat. Reduce this fear by helping your daughter get to know that the other girls (and most people in general) are harmless. Chat about the individual personalities, mannerisms, talents, and lives of her troop mates and classmates. It goes without saying that you will point out factors that make the girls less ominous, more interesting, and therefore more appealing. For example, “Charlotte mentioned they have two parrots as pets. I wonder what that’s like!” Or, “Danita was so excited to teach that new song today. Did you like it? I bet we can find it on the internet when we get home.” And, “Paloma says she’s spending a few weeks this summer at her great grandparents’ in Mexico. Maybe she’d like to borrow your Spanish picture dictionary?”
Find a Buddy
Identify and support a good friendship. This is good advice for the parents of any child who seems socially awkward. Note which of the other girls may be somewhat quiet, share a common interest with your daughter, and or seem to be friendly toward her. Make friends with this child’s parents so you can arrange some one-on-one get togethers. This could be in the guise of a task to benefit the troop, such as making posters to promote an upcoming park clean up. The more time the new buddies can spend together working AND playing, the stronger their friendship bond will grow. A solid friendship can bolster her social courage when the pair are among others.
Become an Expert
What are your daughter’s interests and passions? Follow her lead to help her learn more and gain skills in her favorite subject matter. Then drop a hint to the troop leader that you and your daughter would like to plan a workshop or arrange a field trip for a future meeting. This might be on jewelry, camping skills, poetry, magic, cooking, or whatever your daughter has special knowledge of and abilities with. Her comfort with the topic will help to put her in an easy state of mind for the activity.
To rein in her frenzied emotions, help your daughter to become aware of them. Help her to connect her emotional state when confronted with being in front of the group to the body tension, butterflies, racing heartbeat and or rapid / scattered thoughts that she experiences. It’s best to talk to her about her anxiety when it’s not happening – on a walk, while folding laundry, as you unload the dishwasher – so her rational brain can calmly analyze the behavior of her emotional brain. (We don’t operate very efficiently when the emotional brain has taken over!)
Try some mindfulness exercises suggested by the Positive Psychology Program. One exercise is to stand in a Wonder Woman pose – legs astride and arms akimbo – and take notice of the sensations of empowerment this brings. Or try the glitter in a jar demo that shows how strong emotions can have your daughter feeling “all mixed up,” making it hard to think. Watch with her as the glitter settles. Give her the suggestion that when she feels this way, she should pause, mentally retreat, and visualize the shimmering sparkles of her mind as they make their way back down to rest at the bottom.
Her quiet mind is her superpower.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.