Once COVID numbers decreased and we started seeing more people, my toddler would cry and get uncomfortable. I thought pandemic isolation was the cause until experts explained she was likely just taking my lead.
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Credit: Getty Images. ART: ANNA HALKIDIS

I was excited to take my 1-year-old, Elle, to my grandpa's house for a big family dinner, our first time all together since the pandemic started. My extended family was looking forward to finally meeting my daughter. But from the moment we walked through the door, it was clear my toddler didn't want to be there. She looked around at everyone—my aunts, uncles, cousins, and even at my sweet 90-year-old grandpa—and burst into tears. She howled as I rushed her to the back bedroom for privacy.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time my toddler panicked at the sight of unfamiliar people. Weeks before, she hid under the couch when a friend came over. When I took her to a restaurant, she whined whenever the server approached the table. Doctor appointments were also a scream fest, whether in the waiting room or at the checkout desk.

I was convinced this was all because of the pandemic. After all, my daughter had spent most of her life in isolation. Then suddenly, when vaccines became available and COVID-19 infection numbers dropped, she met a whole new world. But when I mentioned this to our pediatrician, she didn't agree. "Kids screamed at strangers long before coronavirus," she said with a shrug.

Joshua Rosenthal, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and owner of Manhattan Psychology Group, agrees that social anxiety isn't unique to pandemic kids. Nor is it a sign that something is wrong. "Stranger anxiety is a natural part of development for kids between 8 months up to 2 years," he says. "They realize their parents are separate from them and they start to become afraid that they may not come back."

Still, I was worried that the pandemic had somehow heightened my daughter's worry because she was constantly on edge around anyone new. After all, going back to normal was a challenge for me. I couldn't imagine what it was like for her. I started talking to more experts to find a way to help my daughter. But to fix the issue, I learned, I needed to self-reflect.

When Anxiety Affects Your Children

Children who seem more nervous, or who are suffering from social anxiety, may simply be taking their parent's lead, especially during the pandemic, explains Stephanie Bonza, Psy.D., a clinical forensic psychologist based in Chicago. "Kids are able to pick up on the emotion of the people around them," she says. "So if you are feeling stressed or anxious in a setting, they're going to be able to sense that."

In fact, a parent's body language can be all it takes to influence children, says Henrike Moll, Ph.D., director of the Minds in Development Lab at University of Southern California. "Kids are very inclined to take on your attitude," says Dr. Moll. "How do you receive or approach someone? Are you happy to see them? Do you give hugs, or do you step away and act more suspicious? That is certainly something that they would adopt."

Of course, children can have social anxiety for other reasons. But thinking back on times I went out with my daughter during the pandemic, I'll admit I was very wary of others. At our neighborhood restaurant, I asked for secluded tables. At the park, I'd pick up my daughter if other kids got too close. Even when we started seeing family again, I usually kept my distance. Elle observed my nervousness and began responding in a similar way.

I don't regret taking precautions against COVID-19, but I never intended to pass undo stress onto my daughter. Luckily, the experts say these effects aren't permanent, as long as parents make an effort to help their little ones feel comfortable around others. Warming children up to social situations may take time. But Kendra Read, Ph.D., psychologist and director of the Mood and Anxiety program at Seattle Children's in Seattle, stresses the importance of parents taking an active role in helping their children overcome social nervousness, rather than waiting for their kids to grow out of the phase. She says, "The kids who are likely to 'grow out of it' are the kids who are in an environment that encourages them to face their fears, with people who say, 'I get that this is hard and let's give it a try anyway.'"

How Parents Can Handle Anxiety

With coronavirus an ongoing threat, encouraging my daughter to be brave has been difficult. She's still not eligible for vaccination, so I'm afraid encouraging her to socialize will lead to a COVID infection. On the other hand, I'm worried that not helping her overcome her fears could have lasting effects. A little extra stranger anxiety is understandable these days, but I don't want my daughter to carry it with her; I want her to feel comfortable around people. 

One way to do that, Dr. Moll says, is simply discussing what is going on. "You could explain, 'Hey, you know, a lot of people are sick, there's a virus, so we have to be careful; we have to keep some distance. It doesn't mean that you don't like people or don't want to communicate with them,'" she advises. 

It can also be beneficial for parents to adjust their own responses to perceived threats. While just being braver may not be possible, Dr. Read says parents can give their children a model for how to face fears. For example, if a parent is nervous about talking to a stranger, they could say something like, "I'm noticing I'm feeling anxious right now and I also know that I can do this. People are usually nice when I ask a question at the store." Dr. Read adds, "It is important for our kids to see from us that feeling anxious is not a bad or unusual thing."

Still, even with a strong example, parents can't expect children to overcome social anxiety right away. Dr. Rosenthal points out that a gradual approach to socialization can be most effective. He suggests parents introduce children to a new environment before inviting new people. For example, allow a child to play in a relative's or friend's house and get comfortable in the space first. Next, allow the child to hear new people in another room. Then, finally, let the family or friends come into the same space.

This gentle method of introduction can be done relatively quickly, explains Dr. Rosenthal, or even over several visits. "Encourage the child to face the situation with confidence—sometimes we break that down into steps, so it feels more palatable for our kids," he adds.

And if you notice a child is OK being around people but feeling too nervous to join in a conversation, parents can help them with that, too. Dr. Read suggests asking your child a question in front of the other person and taking it from there. "Like, 'Oh, did we go to the zoo, or the toy store this weekend?' And they say, 'Zoo,' then we say, 'Definitely. We went to the zoo.' And you just then carry on the conversation with the other person," explains Dr. Read. "You're just doing these little bits to invite them in."

Months have passed since that first big family gathering, and Elle and I have visited those same relatives again, usually one by one, in quieter settings. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandpa love visits with my daughter. Little by little, she's starting to love seeing them, too.