Parenting Socially Anxious Children

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So here's the thing about parenting: nobody says it, but deep down I think we get it. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE ARE DOING.  I mean, think about it. Virtually every step of parenting comes with absolutely no previous experience. 

For example, that time I had a one-day-old baby? I’d never had a one-day-old baby before.  I wasn’t sure what to do with her.  And then there was that time I had a one-day-old baby, plus a toddler. Definitely had never done that before. Brand new territory.

Now I have a 20-year-old living away from home. Again, totally uncharted territory in which I have no prior experience.  How often should I call her? Visit? What is the best way to encourage her when she’s lonely? Protect her when she’s making new friends? Uh… I don’t know. If I were going to sum up my parenting motto in a T-shirt slogan, that would be it: “Uh… I don’t know.”
Virtually every moment of development in our child’s life is new and exciting and probably scary and uncharted territory.  We really shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, considering our parenting level has always been and always will be: novice.  Even if you’ve had twenty kids and they’ve all turned out great… number 21 will be unlike anybody else in the family and away you go. Do you hear me, parents? Stop being so hard on yourselves!
So when it comes to parenting a socially anxious child… here are some realistic goals.

  1. Preventing or curing social anxiety in our child is not the goal.  I don’t have the power to prevent social anxiety in my child.  Recent research has shown that social anxiety is just slightly more nature (genetic inheritance) than nurture (parenting style; Isomura et al. 2014).  There are a lot of complex factors that go into the making or breaking of social anxiety, and perfect parenting isn't one of them. So let’s say I did finally achieve my dream of winning the Universal Perfect Mother Award… I still don’t hold all the cards when it comes to my child’s temperament. Frankly, God holds all the cards for that. My child will be exactly who God destined him or her to be. That truth should take a lot of the pressure off.
  2. The goal IS to prevent unnecessary suffering. I DO have a tremendous amount of power in shaping my child’s beliefs about his or her social anxiety. Let’s not forget, social anxiety makes many things in life much more difficult.  But it is also a gift: because it helps us to realize we aren’t perfect. We never will be. But Jesus was. And through Him, all the pressure is off. Social anxiety can be the thing that drives our child to seek perfection apart from himself/herself. It may be the very catalyst that draws our child close to Jesus. And there is nothing better than having a child who is confidant of God’s love, apart from their own performance.
  3. If I am socially anxious myself, I will model unhealthy socially anxious behaviors to my children.  Sorry, we just can’t escape ourselves.  But here’s a tip that has worked really well in our family: let your shy/socially anxious child spend lots of social time with the more outgoing parent or family friend.  My wonderful, extroverted, party-man of a husband took our son golfing too many times to count during childhood. And through it, our son learned a tremendous amount of social skills. If you happen to be the more socially anxious parent, don’t beat yourself up about it! Instead, be thankful and utilize the people in life who have social skills to offer our children.

Finally, a few notes on parenting styles in general. Decades of research have given us a pretty good idea of which parenting style promotes healthy children.  

According to Root et al. (2016), “Supportive parenting is characterized by parenting that is sensitive to children's needs, and marked by warmth, responsiveness, and positivity.”  From a biblical perspective, this parenting makes love and relationship central, while still valuing rules. Healthy rules are established, consistently reinforced, but always within the context of love and acceptance. Love is handed out lavishly, completely independent of the child’s performance (ie. adherence to the rules).  Are you catching the theme? We can model unconditional love towards our children, just as God lavishes unconditional love towards us.  Grace.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is intrusive, controlling, inflexible, and/or harsh parenting. This type of parenting idealizes rules above all else. It is strict discipline, minus the warmth and empathy needed to nurture the child’s heart.  We must never forget that childhood, by definition, should be totally full of misbehavior.  Children are in learning mode. Just like their parents, they don’t know what the heck they are doing. They are in novice mode with every new challenge they face. Harsh judgments will only serve to reinforce the central fear in social anxiety: a fear of judgment.


    In conclusion, here are a few delightful facts.

  1. For every time we screw up as a parent, God’s grace fills in the gap. Perfect parenting is impossible and unnecessary.
  2. We are not raising little Jesus’s here. We are big flawed humans raising little flawed humans who will grow up to be big flawed humans.  Our job is to encourage our children to value perfection, while realizing it is only found in Jesus. We have the high privilege of getting them started in life with a light burden, relieved by God’s never-ending love.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” ~ Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)



Isomura, K., M. Boman, C. Rück, E. Serlachius, H. Larsson, P. Lichtenstein, and D. Mataix-Cols. 2014. “Population-based, Multi-generational Family Clustering Study of Social Anxiety Disorder and Avoidant Personality Disorder.” Psychological medicine 1-9. doi:10.1017/S0033291714002116

Root, Amy E. and Hastings, Paul D. and Rubin, Kenneth H. 2015. "The Parenting Behaviors of Shy–Anxious Mothers: The Moderating Role of Vagal Tone." J Child Fam Stud 25 (4): 1325–1333.

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