Social Anxiety, Teens, And A Pandemic

In today’s episode of Flusterclux, Lynn answers two listener questions. If you have an anxious tween or teen who didn’t like joining in before, how do you support them in a pandemic with remote learning?

Another parent asks about her six year old’s struggles with blaming others and finding friends. What do you say to the child who says, “Nobody likes me?”

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Show Notes

Books mentioned in this episode:

Playing With Anxiety by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson

Outsmarting Worry by Dawn Huebner

David Gets In Trouble by David Shannon

The Circle helps parents manage their kids screen time. It lets you set daily limits for different apps and social media. It also controls your kid’s Wi Fi schedules, and you can adjust age-appropriate filters for searches, from little kids to teens. Our affiliate link will get you $20 off a Circle.

Episode Transcript

Robin Hutson  0:48 

Okay, Lynn, I have a listener question for you.

Lynn Lyons  0:50 

All right, I’m ready.

Robin Hutson  0:51 

My eighth grade daughter has extreme anxiety about trying anything new, where she used to cry when I used to push her to try a new activity. I now get allowed for him. No, I’m not doing it. We moved to a new town in school last year and she made one friend and joined Best Buddies as she truly loves working with people with special needs.

I did force her to do a fall sport, and she chose cross country crying, fighting me for at least two weeks. She made a few friends and even got a coach’s award. She was doing okay. Not ecstatic about life. But okay.

Then COVID hit, and there was no more opportunity to make new friends. And the one she has is completely remote. She’s back to school now hybrid and goes to school like it’s her job at the office, very matter of fact, but doesn’t really talk to anyone or have new friends.

I recently told her that she needs to do an activity where she’s active. And I don’t care what it is. I threw out everything from horseback riding to Nordic skiing, to rock climbing. We discussed how she needs to move and to meet people, and she flat out refuses to sign up for anything. There were lots of tears.

She said she’s done reaching out to other girls because nobody likes her. I know she misses her old friends at her old school dearly, but feels they’ve moved on without her. She feels awkward asking any girls at her new school to hang out. And it’s especially hard with COVID. I teach eighth grade at another district. So, I know how weird it is for kids at school right now. So how hard do I push? How do I help? I’m afraid her best friends are the cast of Grey’s Anatomy at this point.

Lynn Lyons  2:21 

Oh yeah. So, this is so typical. And I think this is why when we’re looking at the social stuff going on with kids that this middle school age is so hard, because as you’re seeing with your eighth grade daughter, she doesn’t have the opportunity to be around people, she doesn’t have the opportunity to just sort of let things organically happen. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

We know that COVID is having a big impact on this age group. However, this is not just a COVID thing, this is an anxiety thing. And so, your daughter really doesn’t have the skills and probably has not really learned the skills yet to step in and tolerate uncertainty in a way that she understands what’s going on. You’ve done a great job of hanging in there with her of saying you’re going to do cross country; you have to be active.

But I wonder if she really needs what I call front loading. And if you need some front loading about how this worry thing works, because she has in her head in her worry, right? So, if we pull out her worry part, she’s got a consistent message from her worry that says and we heard one of them. And again, it was a global statement. Right? Nobody likes her that she’s done reaching out to other girls.

That’s a global permanent statement that we know comes from anxiety that says I’m not taking any risk. I’m not moving forward. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s not going to reach out to these new eighth grade girls and ask them to do things that’s not going to happen.

So, I would give up on that for now putting her in activities, talking to her very specifically about how it’s difficult for her when her worry shows up when she feels like she’s stepping into something that’s going to have uncertainty, possibility of rejection, you’ve got a young girl who is really struggling with being able to manage this part of her this worry that says people don’t like me, this is too risky. I’m not able to do this. She doesn’t know how to manage that part of her yet. That’s where I would focus.

So, giving her opportunities to do that hard in COVID. But really helping her with those opportunities. She’s not going to initiate it; she’s not going to do it on her own. It’s just too hard for her. So, she needs some help and support. She really needs to understand how worry works. She needs to get some distance from it she needs to rather than be in the content of it, right so it’s about other girls or rather having rather than it being an argument between you and her that you’re going to push and she’s going to push back.

This is between her and her worry, she needs to learn about that she needs to know what to do about that. And to get some resources and some information about how worry works. This is classic stuff.

Eighth grade, there’s a there’s a really good book by Don Huebner called Outsmarting Worry, I would get a copy of that, we can put a link to it in the show notes. My book Playing with Anxiety is written for tweeners, and they love it.

So, I would have I would have you in her look at that book as well, because it’s really gonna begin to unlock the way this process works.

Right now, you’re just pushing up against her and she’s pushing back. And there’s not really clearly not enough information or not a lot of knowledge yet about how anxiety works, how worry works and what she’s going to have to do in order to break out of this pattern. And COVID makes it so much harder. So just recognize that she misses her friends. She’s in a new environment for sure. And, you know, Grey’s Anatomy is a good show.

Robin Hutson  6:09 

I’ve never seen it. Can you believe that? Oh, it’s good. But not on for like 12 years or something? Right?

Lynn Lyons  6:13 

Yeah, yeah, I haven’t watched it a long time. But I watched like the first four seasons. It’s like a soap opera,

Robin Hutson  6:19 

You know, my daughter’s in ninth grade. So, I can I understand how tricky the middle school years are. Do you feel like this is anxiety, but it’s really manifesting as social anxiety?

Lynn Lyons  6:32 

Yeah, different diagnostic categories. To me, it just describes the content in, you know, sort of the arena in which it shows up. So, if you have separation anxiety, that means you have a hard time being away from the people you love.

If you’ve got emetophobia, that means that you’re terrified all the time that you or somebody else is going to throw up. If you’ve got social anxiety, it’s all about judgment. It’s all about stepping in and being able to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings, the awkwardness, the possible rejection, the fact that people do judge each other, as you’re getting to know each other social anxiety says, I can’t handle any of that. I don’t want any of that. And I’m not going to take any risk.

Social Anxiety is all about the fear of judgment, and a real lack of confidence in your ability to connect with people. Because here’s the interesting thing about social anxiety. We think it’s about other people. Right? So, we say, Oh, she’s socially anxious. So, she gets when she gets anxious when she’s around other people. It’s not really about the other people.

Social Anxiety is hugely internally focused. It’s about the conclusions that you come to inside your head about the other people. So, anxiety in general is a very internally focused state. And so social anxiety just means that the content in which this thing really plays out is when you’re in social situations, because it’s really about fear of judgment, and not being able to step into those, you know, those unpredictable interactions, human beings are unpredictable.

Robin Hutson  8:00 

You know, as you say this, and, you know, the, the daughter said, I’m done reaching out to the other girls, because nobody likes me, right? Before I started doing the show with you, if you had asked me or if someone had said that phrase, I would have said every teenage girl says that phrase at one point. Do you think that that’s true? Or do you think that that is because… I certainly felt that at certain times growing up. Did you feel that at certain times growing up, too?

Lynn Lyons  8:25 

Yeah, I didn’t feel like nobody liked me. But I certainly handled or had a lot of rejection. So, there were times when I absolutely felt like I didn’t fit in, and that I was being rejected and that kind of stuff. For sure.

Robin Hutson  8:40 

Right? You’re sort of proving my point that everyone feels that way. But what, of course, what you’re taking notice of is her use of a global approach to it. But then the nobody likes me language.

Lynn Lyons  8:51 

Correct. And I’m also looking at the first line of this question, which was my eighth grade daughter has extreme anxiety about trying anything new. Sure. Right. So that puts us into the realm of sort of, we’re not talking about those.

You know, I always tell the story of when my younger son after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the giants, and he’s lying in bed. And he’s sobbing because he’s so sad. He was seven, and then he’s like, and also, I have no friends, which was not true at all, right? But it was just the way he was feeling. So, these big overwhelming emotions often come out in the social realm, particularly during middle school because that’s like, that’s the that’s the sticky, swampy developmental goo that you’re in.

We can normalize it a little bit, but I don’t want to normalize it too much. Because mom is recognizing that this is extreme anxiety. This is probably a pattern that’s been going on for a long time. The thing to pay attention to when she says I’m done reaching out because nobody likes me, that’s a red flag because that’s how the isolation shows up with social anxiety that we know can sort of push teenage kids towards depression, because the desire and the need to connect is so, so important at that age. So, we all have felt that way. I just think this is probably at another level,

Robin Hutson  10:13 

I hear that. I’m curious too, if you know, break it down, think about the parts, as you always say, we need a certain amount of connection. So, if the connection isn’t currently easy for her daughter to feel at this new school, how are there other forms of connection that are still possible?

Is she still involved with best buddies? Or is there another way to volunteer even remotely? Because I know that there are websites that curate remote volunteer opportunities?

And then is there anything to do with the friends from the old school, we did a move and I know that it was very helpful before my daughter made friends at her new school that we still socialized as much as we could with people from her old school. So, are there any bridges, you know, that can be made?

Lynn Lyons  11:02 

Yeah, I think that’s a really good, a really good point. Because connection, one of the things that happens too, is that we think there’s just one level of connection. So, she’s probably feeling like she doesn’t have close friends at her new school, she doesn’t have a new best friend, she doesn’t have this group that she feels comfortable with, like she probably felt in our old school.

And so being able to talk to her about the different ways that people connect and the different levels of connection, I think you’re right, I mean, I think bringing up that point about the that she joined best buddies, she really feels good when she’s connecting in a way where she feels like she’s doing something and she feels competent, and she feels like she can be helpful.

It’s the tricky sort of starting a new friendship thing that’s really throwing her. The other thing too, I would have her do is to really have a conversation with her about her success in connecting in the past. Because anxiety makes you amnesic to your successes.

And a lot of times when I talk to kids, so say she joined cross-country, and she went and she did it. I say well, how did it go? And they were like it was okay. And I say, well give me give me some instances in which you felt like you really were a part of the team or you had some fun, and then they’re able to pull some of that stuff up.

Yeah, so helping her recognize there are a lot of different ways to connect and adopt a lot of different levels, different depths of connection, I think is important. But Mom should not give up on having her involved in things. She just needs some help understanding how worry works and how to get some distance from those mantras in her head, that word has been thrown at her probably for a long time. In other words,

Robin Hutson  12:34 

What you’re saying is that if the daughter has a greater understanding of the worry process, when she’s shutting down to activities and social opportunities, if she can externalize the worry and deal with that, it will help her reengage in all of these other things,

Lynn Lyons  12:52 

Right. And so, you know, one of the most important parts of the treatment that I do is to convince kids and sometimes it takes a little convincing that we need to step into the very situations that make us feel awkward and uncomfortable, because that’s how we’re laying down some new pathways in this anxious brain.

So of course, anxiety wants to avoid because it doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable. I’m always trying to flip it on its ear. So, we’re going to do things on purpose that feel hard, that feel awkward, because we’re learning a new skill. And it’s a skill that anxiety does not want you to learn at all. It’s a skill that anxiety wants to say I’m out. And so, when anxiety says I’m out, we’ve got to say I mean, that’s what treatment is about.

 But when kids understand that, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just you know, forcing them to do things and shoving them into situations when there’s some sort of rationale behind it, then you can you get a little bit more cooperation, like, you know, we’re in this together.

So, mom and the daughter are working together to not let worry define what’s going to be done and not done. So, we’re breaking worries, rules, basically. And that information, then then it makes more sense to a kid like why are you going to force me to do something I hate? Well, I’m going to force you to do something you hate. I don’t want to force you. But we’re going to get you to do something that feels uncomfortable.

We’re doing the opposite of what worry demands worry, we’ll continue to take over more and more territory if we let it and we’re not going to let it run our lives. That’s the psychoeducation that that helps explain the rationale, and oftentimes gets more cooperation rather than resistance.

Robin Hutson  14:25 

You know, the other thing I’m thinking about too, that you’ve referenced in past episodes is that teens, despite their protesting, find great solace in spending time every day on a walk with a parent. And even if they might resist it first. If I knew that one of my kids was really not able to make connections anywhere but, in our home, then I would make sure that that was a daily foundation to give them any sort of sense of connection and purpose that they needed at that time. Stepping in and I know it’s, you know, we’re also overwhelmed, but I think that a parent could recognize the positive power they have, too.

Lynn Lyons  15:02 

Absolutely. Absolutely. You want to be, you know, rather than have it be, you know, if I think about it, if it’s the eighth grader and worry against mom, that’s where it feels so intractable to mom. But if it’s the mom and the eighth grader together against worry, so she’s coaching her and helping her, that’s when we can make some progress.

But it’s got to be moms got to recognize you can’t just say do it. You can’t just say to a kid, like speak Dutch. And then the kids like, I can’t! Right? Well, you shouldn’t you have to, right? You just can’t do it. You know.

So, she says, I urge her to ask to meet up for a hot chocolate downtown. That’s a big step to ask eighth grade girls that you don’t know very well to do that. She and mom, they can be creative of how can you know maybe they arrange a group meetup? Maybe the mom says, like, I’ll help you. Let’s send out a text to four girls. And we’ll make this little will have it a little hot chocolate party or something like that.

But again, it just feels risky. Because what if the girls say no, right? That’s what worry says, I’m not going to do it unless it’s a guarantee. So, moms got to foster that connection with her daughter, so that she is aligned with her daughter against the powerful worry.

Robin Hutson  16:13 

I have an idea, okay, that maybe the mom and the daughter could shape into something that was appealing. If you have a daughter who has found the power of helping others. But she doesn’t want to do the social reach out on her own, it feels too vulnerable. She and her mom could think of a cause that other girls in the eighth grade could participate in and get people focused on a specific task that had a good community outcome where then the daughter is getting to hide behind the cause. Yeah, do the outreach, because that’s what’s important to her that might help make her feel more connected to more girls in the community.

Lynn Lyons  16:56 

Yeah, absolutely. And if she, you know, she loves Best Buddies, because she really likes feeling like she’s helping. When I moved to Concord 22 years ago, and I knew not a person, I joined a group of women who put on events and raised money for women and children in crisis. So, I volunteered for this thing. And it was really nice. But I also that’s how I met some of my best friends. And it was all in this volunteer organization. I met a lot of really interesting women who were, you know, they are for connection as well. So, I think that’s a great idea. I think that’s a great idea. And it can be like a mother daughter thing. And that way that is a little bit of a help and a little bit of a buffer.

Daughter  17:37 

Mom, can I have more time?

Robin Hutson  17:38 

This is what you’ll hear when you use a circle to manage your kids screen time. What do you think of the circle?

Daughter  17:43 

I hate it.

Robin Hutson

Why do you hate it?


Well, I don’t actually. But I feel like it’s good that I’m not spending as much time on the internet.

Robin Hutson  17:49 

It lets you set daily limits for different apps and social media. It also controls your kid’s Wi Fi schedules, and you can adjust age appropriate filters for searches from little kids to teens. Our affiliate link will get you $20 off a Circle. I love it.

Daughter  18:02 

It’s still annoying in the moment.

Robin Hutson  18:03 

I’m sure it is.

Okay, Lynn, I have a listener question for you.

Lynn Lyons  18:09 

All right, I’m ready.

Robin Hutson  18:10 

What can we do about our child demonstrating a victim’s mentality? Lately, more than ever, our son has been blaming others for his behavior, focusing and exaggerating the negative and saying things like, “everyone’s always mean to me,” “it’ll never happen for me.”

He’s almost seven years old and was adopted through foster care. He joined our family when he was four and a half, and our town is fully remote, which overall has been good. But it is definitely not the best way for an energetic, very social first grader to learn. Thankfully, we have a neighborhood with kids. We’ve all been together during the pandemic, and he has a big sister who’s 10. Do you have any suggestions on what we can do to get him away from the “poor-me” attitude?

Lynn Lyons  18:51 

Yes, I do have some suggestions. The great thing about this is that you’re as… and I often say this, you’re paying attention to this. And he’s not even seven years old yet. So, you’re really on top of it, which is fabulous. The first thing you want to pay attention to is that this is prototypical global thinking, you’re hearing that language, right? Like everyone’s always mean to me, and it will never happen for me.

Global language is when you paint the world with this broad brush generally in a negative way. Because people who are globally happy don’t really come to me for therapy, globally negative language and it’s the language of overwhelmed. It’s the language of stuck. So those big words like always, nobody never. That just means that in that moment, he’s feeling like he doesn’t know what to do.

And he’s feeling overwhelmed, and he’s probably feeling overwhelmed emotionally because something bad has happened to him or he’s gotten his feelings hurt and he doesn’t know how to get through that. So, your job is to help him in that moment.

Don’t pay so much attention to the actual content of the words that he’s saying. Pay attention to the fact that he doesn’t know what to do to get out of his current state. And so, you want to help him problem solve and or just break it down. So, if you’re going to contradict him, you know, you say, oh, everyone’s always mean to me. And then we want to say, Oh, no, that’s not true. Or, you know, it will never happen for me, we go, oh, but my goodness, you’re still six years old? How do you know that?

So, what you want to say to him, it sounds like you’re overwhelmed, because you’re using those big words again, and you can teach him about those global words. You’re using those big words again. It sounds like maybe you’re having with those big words, you are having big feelings, or you are feeling stuck. So, let’s think about that.

Sometimes people are mean to you. And I think right now, maybe you feel like Sophie was mean to you. We also know that sometimes people aren’t mean to you. And so, we’re gonna think about what you can do. When you’re feeling overwhelmed. Let’s think about all the different steps that you can take, if you’re feeling sad, you can tell me about it, you can go outside and play, this is a really hard time, because you can’t burn off all this energy that you have inside of you, we want to talk to him about his parts, because that’s the opposite of global. Right.

There’s a part of you that really, it’s been kind of nice with remote learning, hasn’t it because we can be home and you don’t have to go to school every day, Oh, my gosh, but there’s a part of you, that’s just like a little Springer Spaniel that needs to run and have fun. We’re dealing with all these different parts of you and all these different feelings.

So that would be how I would go after the global language that he’s using. The other thing you should know about blaming and global language is that developmentally, this is a thing that kids go through, because they’re learning how to accept responsibility for the things that they’ve done. And that’s a you know, that’s a big developmental task, that’s a big ask of a little six year old, even almost seven year old.

So, it’s normal for kids to do the, you know, I didn’t do it. If you haven’t seen the David books, there is a great one, and I’ll find it and we’ll link it in the show note, but there’s a really great book, David Gets In Trouble. David goes through this, this period of not accepting responsibility for anything, you know, they’re very short, they’re very wonderfully illustrated. So, know that this is a normal developmental phase. It’s just that you want to coach him through it.

So, I would say something like, you know, it’s really hard. When I make a mistake, use yourself as a model, when I make a mistake, I immediately want to find a way to make it not my fault, because that feels bad. When it’s your fault. It feels bad. When you get called out on something, it feels badly when we make a mistake. And that’s okay. It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s okay to screw up. An it’s okay to not feel good about that. And that’s a part of being a human being.

So, what we’re going to work on is when you do something that feels badly, I don’t know what his history as he came to you in foster care. So, there’s some there could be some issues about that, too, which I’m sure you’re aware of, and you’re working through, but just talk him through it, and give him language so that when he does something wrong, and you can say to him, Mom, when I do something wrong, oh, I immediately feel like oh, shoot, I shouldn’t have done that. Or I want to blame somebody else. And then I have to say, I’m sorry. Or I have to say, Oh, I’m a human being and we make mistakes, just give him some language and some modeling.

The main thing is this is not an unusual thing. developmentally, we want to pay attention to that global language. And you just want to model and give him words and sort of, you know, almost like put words in his mouth for him, so to speak, so that he knows how to begin to articulate a different reaction.

Robin Hutson  23:46 

You know, in another listener question, you gave an example. And I hear it in my head, like how you would talk to this little boy as well. I love the approach of showing them, you know, you sound stuck, because you’re blaming Susie for this, it’s okay, that you’re learning how to be in the wrong. Mm hmm. It’s okay that it doesn’t feel good. And it doesn’t feel comfortable and you don’t want to feel it. Right. Yeah, we spend our whole lives learning how to be wrong and how to say we’re sorry. Yeah. And sort of like normalizing and these are skills you don’t know yet and it’s okay that you don’t know them. And we’re all going to work on them together.

Lynn Lyons  24:23 

Exactly. That’s what we’re trying to show our kids when things go fine. Everything goes fine. Right? It’s these are the bumps that we’re talking our kids through, you know, when they get disappointed when their heart gets broken when somebody is mean to them when they screw up when they make a mistake when they act in a way that then maybe they feel badly about or maybe they need help recognizing the impact on another person. This is all just normal stuff that kids need to be walked through developmentally

Robin Hutson  24:50 

You gave the start of that conversation of like, you know, you’re you seem a little stuck. And I love how because you like breaking things into parts. You just open the conversation. With You know, there’s a skill that it’s that you’re going to be working on the next several years about this, this this. Yeah. And let’s talk about it because it’s hard, and I’m here to help you.  And what would this look like?

Lynn Lyons  25:13 

And  you even just say, you know, like you can give an example. I mean, this is a real example last night I was super stuck. So, I went up, my husband was watching TV and I went upstairs and I said, I need a pep talk because I’m stuck. Because I’m starting this new project and it’s making me cranky.

And he said to me, okay, so  what do you think I’m going to tell you, which of course was a little annoying, but I knew what he was gonna say. And I knew that what I needed to say to myself was you don’t have to start the project at the beginning. Right? The thing that’s easiest to write, right the thing you know how to write?

And he said, Yep, see? So, there’s the pep talk. And I just felt better saying to him, I’m stuck. I’m overwhelmed and him saying, let’s break it down into parts. Right?

And I’m, I’m a grown ass woman, and I still needed that help. I needed that conversation. I needed somebody to remind me of that skill.

Robin Hutson  26:04 

You are a grown ass woman.

So, join the Facebook group so that you can ask Lynn, your question on an upcoming episode.

Lynn Lyons  26:16 

And thanks for joining us for another episode of Flusterclux! Bye, Robin!

Robin Hutson  26:21 

Bye, Lynn!

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