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Cultural background: my family and I live in the Midwestern US.

My wife and I have a five-year-old daughter who seems to have a morbid fear of 'other kids laughing at (her)'. Previously she would mention this whenever she was feeling shy, but since she's generally a sociable and out-going child I've never overly worried about it.

But lately it seems to impact her well-being every time she has to do anything in front of a crowd. She recently graduated from pre-k and the kids did a little song-and-dance routine, she just stood there with her head down. Although she's been in karate class for a year at the latest session she was very uncooperative. At church this past weekend she was happily playing with the other kids until it was time to sing their song and dance and she just stood there. Six months ago this child was belting out the Frozen soundtrack at the top of her lungs for the entertainment of the neighborhood kids. When asked about these issues she replied with her "I'm shy because I'm afraid people will laugh at me' line.

I don't know where this is coming from, because to the best of my knowledge she's never been laughed at. Asking her why she thinks anyone would laugh at her when no one has done so does not yield any sort of answer (part of irrational fears is that they are just that: irrational). I can only assume that she picked it up from television where snarky dialogue and personal embarrassment are par for the course.

As the question title and background I just gave may indicate, I'm a little skeptical that this situation is a legitimate fear as stated by the child. Is she really that socially anxious in certain situations (but her usual cheery self with small groups of adults and other children)? If not what's going on? If so, how do I assuage her fears?

Most of what I could find online about social anxiety was (unsurprisingly) geared towards teenagers with their greater emphasis on peer relationships, not five-year-olds who still more or less orbit their parent's star.

Thanks for any help!

UPDATE:

Thanks for all the great answers, wish I could accept more than one!

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This is a great question.

This anxiety s interfering with your daughter's day to day life.

Imagine someone with a full blown, clincally diagnosed, phobia of, say, spiders.

We know that saying "your fear is irrational" does not help them overcome their phobia. We know that saying "there is no legitimate reason to be so scared of spiders - there are not many venomous spiders here and you've never been bitten by one and you could just squish it with a book of you did see one" - we know that doesn't help to overcome their fear.

Remember that anxiety has physical effects on the body - muscles tense, breathing changes, palms might become sweaty. The body is preparing to run or fight. These physical changes also affect thoughts. Thoughts affect emotion, and you end up with a cycle of thoughts and emotions making each other stronger. You can break this cycle with a careful plan:

Some things that do help:

1) acknowledge that your child does have this fear. See things from her point of view. Accept that for her being laughed at would be a problem.

2) once she realises that you accept it's a problem for her start asking her to talk about the thoughts and emotions she feels. When she stops herself doing something does she feel sad, angry, scared, ashamed? Ask her how strongly she feels this on a scale of one to five. Ask her why she feels this. In her case she'll say "people will laugh at me". Ask her what her evidence is for this - has she ever been laughed at; does she see other children being laughed at; does she herself laugh at other children. Allow her some time - a few moments - to sit with these feelings.

3) now start asking her what else might happen instead. "When you do something and it goes wrong will people be mean to you, or will they want to help you?"; "when you do something will people he pleased for you or will they laugh at you?", "when you join in the song and dance will people be happy that you joined in?"

4) now ask her to re-asses how strongly she feels her fear.

5) it's important to help her actually do the things she's scared of in a supportve way that sue can control. EG do these sessions before martial arts, but let her know that she can just walk out at any time. If she tries to walk out take her some of the way ot of the situation and run through the exercises again.

6) reward good behaviour; reward effort.

This is an iterative process! You are not aiming to go from "very scared" to "not scared at all" the first time you do this! This process is a brief version of "cognitive behaviour therapy"; there are probably versions of this for young children. You don't need a therapist unless the problem becomes more severe - you can do this yourself from a book.

Young children can experience mental health problems like anxiety. Here is some further information from reputable sources. The last two do mention anxiety in younger children.

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents/worried_about_your_child/anxiety

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/anxiety-in-children.aspx

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anxiety-children/Pages/Introduction.aspx

  • 1
    This cycle works well, but it's a constant process My son (8) has been extremely averse to public attention for years. We've encouraged, discussed, focused on smaller settings, etc. Last weekend, he got up on stage and read a paragraph as part of a class performance. He read too fast, no emotional expression, and held the page over his face while walking to the microphone — regardless, I was proud because of the effort and courage he showed (it never would have happened a year ago!). #1 (being supportive and acknowledging his fear) was the most important part, in our experience. – Acire Jun 2 '15 at 13:41
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    Yes, and I have been perhaps too dismissive of her fears. Part of the reason is that this all came out of left field: she has been not only willing but eager for the spotlight until about a month ago. I keep thinking that something must have happened that triggered this but I can't think of what. – Jared Smith Jun 2 '15 at 14:14
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I had that kind of fear as a child. I didn't get over it until my late twenties. Now I regularly play the organ or give presentations in front of hundreds of people, and not only don't fear it, I enjoy it.

First of all, most children are not cruel, but they are tactless. They do indeed laugh at mistakes, because mistakes are amusing. Only a few bullies taunt or mock, but most all children will laugh without meaning anything by it. The fear may be out of proportion, but it is not over something imaginary.

Second, nothing anyone said really helped. People know all the right platitudes, and I knew intellectually that people meant me no harm, but in the end, you just have to take courage and power through it on your own.

What I think my parents did right was not shelter me from the experience. They gave me many opportunities to try, even though it was very hard for me.

What I did for myself that helped was prepare and rehearse, not only for the desired outcome, but for any contingencies. First of all, the preparation made me feel like I was less likely to make a mistake in the first place. However, I think rehearsing what to do if things go wrong was actually more helpful. People tend to dismiss this approach as "focusing on the negative," but not knowing what to do is more scary.

I still do this when I prepare for a presentation, even though they no longer scare me. I ask myself what will I do if my opening joke bombs? What if my demo has a bug? I try to anticipate the different questions and criticisms I might get, and what to do if I get a question I didn't expect. Often, I can roll these answers back into my presentation preemptively, which improves its quality.

I had a choir teacher who took this approach of teaching a strategy for when things go wrong. He instructed his students if they ever forgot the lyrics, just pretend to sing while silently mouthing the word "watermelon" until you remember again.

So with your daughter, I would stop trying to convince her no one will laugh. That won't work. I would ask her what she could do to help in case someone does laugh, and practice. Plug her ears, give a practiced scowl, close her eyes, sing louder, look at her parents, laugh back, or whatever works for her. For something like karate, rehearse what to do if she forgets her routine. Hold the previous position until you remember, or perhaps end early and do your bow. The point is to have a strategy, something to focus on besides your fear.

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    I've done a plan-for-failures activity often with my ballerina daughter (who does get stage fright, but not terribly severe). "What's the worst that could happen?" We come up with a mixture of plausible failures (you trip, you forget the moves, the music breaks) so she can be prepared in case something does go wrong, and absurd ideas (a horde of kittens crawls on stage, you suddenly grow a third arm) so she relaxes a bit from all the giggling. I usually save something like "what if the audience boos your dance" for the absurd section, to discuss how it's even less likely than a kitten attack. – Acire Jun 2 '15 at 17:15
  • I like that "absurd section" idea. I'll have to remember that. – Karl Bielefeldt Jun 2 '15 at 17:17
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I like what Karl said in his answer:

First of all, most children are not cruel, but they are tactless. They do indeed laugh at mistakes, because mistakes are amusing. ...most all children will laugh without meaning anything by it.

Try asking your daughter why the other kids would laugh if she made a mistake. She'll probably give a fairly good reason. Then ask if she would laugh if she saw one of her friends making a mistake. She probably would, and she probably wouldn't mean to hurt her friend's feelings by it; it's just what kids do.

When she understands that part, then you can deploy possibly the most effective anti-fear weapon there is: laughter, ironically enough. It's very hard to laugh at something and be afraid of it at the same time. So teach her to laugh at her own mistakes first, and beat the other kids to it, because if she's laughing first and then the other kids laugh too, they're laughing with her instead of at her.

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