Help Children Overcome Social Jitters


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It’s perfectly normal for kids to feel nervous when they meet someone for the first time, try a new hobby or give a speech. But that flustered, jittery feeling isn’t comfortable. Kids — like adults — may fear they’ll say something stupid or do something embarrassing. When the anxiety gets too intense, kids may declare they’re not going to school, not going on play dates, not having sleepovers.

“Childhood is tough for nearly everyone,” says Bernardo Carducci, psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. “It’s full of missteps as well as new opportunities.” Although each child has unique experiences, Carducci notes anxious behavior is usually triggered by new, unpredictable social situations when a child’s sense of self is on the line.

Parents shouldn’t expect kids to grow out of their shyness, cautions Carducci, who is also the author of The Shyness Breakthrough (Rodale, 2003). Shy kids rarely turn into social butterflies. But parents can help kids develop social skills and confidence. Use the following strategies to calm kids’ social jitters and help them warm up to new situations.

Share your experiences. Your kids may not see you in challenging social situations, but you can tell what happened when you made a presentation at work or started kickboxing class. Describe the physical sensations you felt: racing heart, muscle tension, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms.

Reveal your thoughts and emotions. Say, “I was worried I’d forget what I was supposed to say” or “I thought, ‘What if I fall over trying to kick the heavy bag and everyone laughs at me?’” Kids need to know their feelings are normal.

Stop catastrophic thinking. Social anxieties are like monsters under the bed. Whether or not they are real, they grow bigger and hairier the more you think about them. Catastrophic thinking is the tendency to overestimate the bad consequences of our social blunders, says Gillian Butler, clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness (New York University Press, 2001).

Your son may think that forgetting his lines in the school play will be the end of social life as he knows it; all his classmates will tease him. Help your child notice and combat negative expectations. Social slip-ups are rarely as awful as kids imagine.

Channel anxious energy. Negative emotions aren’t bad; they help us pay attention to important events. Because negative emotions are attention-getters, they can feel overwhelming. Help kids harness that hyped-up feeling and put it to constructive use. If kids focus on doing instead of worrying, nervous energy feels more like excitement than apprehension.

Be prepared. When kids don’t know what to say, they may fear they’ll clam up or stammer when the social pressure is on. Help your child prepare for upcoming interactions by identifying two conversation-starting questions she can use when she meets someone new.

Open-ended questions work best, because they encourage the other person to share information about themselves. “What are you doing for the holidays?” or “What is your favorite movie?” are good options. Of course, your child should be prepared to share her plans and favorite film, too.

Role play. Acting out feared encounters can help kids identify what works and learn that flustered feelings don’t last forever. Rehearse simple scenarios with your child, such as meeting a new friend, asking a question in class, or giving a brief presentation at Scouts. Let mom, dad and the family dog serve as co-actors or audience members, and practice until kids feel comfortable. Take role play seriously, but make it fun, too.

Plan a home field advantage. If your child has a hard time warming up, start on his home turf. Familiar surroundings are comforting, and with his own toys as props, he’ll have more to talk about. Invite a classmate over to play for a short period of time. Get kids started on a shared activity before fading into the background and letting your child test his skills. Don’t interfere; let him find his own voice.

Get busy. It’s easiest for kids to overcome social jitters when activities distract them from their fears. Build skills in social situations that have strong “scripts” for behavior, like having a friend over for dinner, playing a board game or making a craft project. The familiar knowledge of “what we do next” makes these situations less frightening and lets conversation happen naturally. Move to longer, less-scripted social events, like sleepovers, when your child has developed more skills and confidence.

Praise progress. Changing behavior isn’t easy, and kids’ continuing concerns may keep them from seeing how far they’ve come. Point out specific behaviors and praise them. Say, “You introduced yourself first” or “Your voice was clear and strong.” If she made or sustained good eye contact, let her know you noticed. When kids know what they’re doing right, they do it more often.

Take an honest look at your child’s temperament. If he’s more comfortable playing solo and tunes out in a crowd, don’t expect him to become the life of the party. Love your child for who he is, not for who you want him to become, Carducci advises.

Kids can learn to warm up to new, unpredictable social situations with patient, persistent effort — but don’t push. Allow your child time for relaxing, fun activities, including solitary play. It’s hard to learn new skills when your stomach is queasy and your heart is racing.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a freelance writer and psychologist who approaches parenting as a leadership experience.

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December 2019

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Cost: $10/child. Free for ages 2 and younger

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Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

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Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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Cost: $3/person

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Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
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Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Cost: Free

Where:
Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
Telephone: 919-556-7777
Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Cost: $10-$60/person

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Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone: 919-996-8700
Contact Name: Blake Jones
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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Harris Lake County Park
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New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Cost: $9/adult, $3 ages 12 and younger

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Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Cost: $10/child

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get into the holiday spirit by decorating cooking, making a craft and enjoying a holiday children's show.

Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Website »

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The Wake Forest Abilities Choir will present an evening of holiday music under the direction of director.

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Cost: Free

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State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
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Cost: free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone, and adult accompanime

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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Cost: $18/child; $28 for two children per family

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Cost: Free

Where:
Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
Contact Name: Lorraine Entwisle
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Cost: $18 per child per workshop

Where:
1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Telephone: 919-560-2726
Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
Website »

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Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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