Health5 Reasons Why Anxious Children May Be Liked Less

5 Reasons Why Anxious Children May Be Liked Less

Is your child socially anxious? Does he or she sometimes find it hard to make friends? Does he or she struggle with relationships at school? Many children experience social anxiety. Unfortunately, it may lead to negative judgments by peers within just one or two minutes of the meeting, creating a potential roadblock to making friendships. Keen to understand how these rapid negative judgments are made, my research team and I used a unique approach to find out more. We filmed seven- to twelve-year-old actors reading aloud a short text from a Harry Potter book and acting out meeting a new child for the first time. We trained the child actors to do this twice, once in a confident manner and once in an anxious manner. The exact same child gave the exact same presentation; the only difference was in how it was delivered (i.e. either anxiously or confidently).

In our study, we showed these videos to 96 girls and boys aged seven- to twelve-years old, and asked them to rate how much they liked and would want to be friends and hang out with the child in the video. The children also rated some other factors thought to be related to anxious behavior and how well-liked a child is. Consistent with other research findings, the “anxious” actors were liked less than the “confident” actors. Statistical analyses showed that the lower liking of the anxious actors was partly mediated, or partly explained, by the children’s ratings of the following factors:

1. Anxious Kids Were Considered Less Physically Attractive

The anxious actors were perceived as less attractive than the confident actors, and this in turn was related to lower liking of the anxious actors. Other studies confirm that attractive people are well-liked. There may be something about anxious behavior that makes the individual look less attractive.

How you can help:

  • Model and encourage good eye contact. People who use good eye contact are typically perceived to be more confident and more attractive.

2. Anxious Kids Were Perceived as Less Similar

Peer raters perceived themselves to be less similar to the anxious actors than the confident actors, and this in turn was related to lower liking of the anxious actors. People often like people who are similar to themselves, and anxious behaviors may create feelings of dissimilarity that prompt less acceptance.

How you can help:

  • Help connect your child with peers who share a similar interest, for example suggest to your child that they find a club or activity class that they might like to take part in.
  • Identify a trending fad. You might not be keen on it, but if it is harmless and every kid in school is playing it, perhaps encourage your child to play it too. It will be easier for your child to connect with peers if they have something to talk about.

3. Anxious Kids Were Considered Less Open to Friendship

Peer raters anticipated that the anxious actors would be less open to being friends with them than the confident actors, and this in turn was related to lower liking of the anxious actors. Shy children have been sometimes found to come across as less warm or friendly. This could lower peers’ expectations for a possible friendship and result in a reduced chance of warming up to the anxious child.

How you can help:

  • Model warm greetings.
  • Praise your child’s smiles.
  • Point out how their smile lets others know that they are friendly. For example, you might say, “Do you see how that girl smiled back when you smiled? Now she is coming over to play.”
  • Brainstorm with your child some ways to make kind gestures to peers. Compliments and small kindnesses are a great way to signal openness to friendship.

4. Anxious Kids Created Social Discomfort

Peers raters reported that the anxious actors made them feel more “uncomfortable,” “embarrassed,” “bored,” or “awkward,” than did the confident actors. These feelings of social discomfort were in turn related to lower liking of the anxious actors.

How you can help:

  • Model confident behavior with other people.
  • Role-play good social skills, such as how to join a game.
  • Remind your child that feeling nervous, and not knowing what to say, is normal. Encourage your child to look interested, ask the other child questions, and listen to the answers. By doing so, they might spark a great conversation.
  • Plan ahead to make sure play dates are fun. Work with your child beforehand to identify fun activities to offer to play with the guest. The children will be more likely to bond if they have fun together.

5. Anxious Kids Were Expected to be Less Accepted by Peers

Peer raters expected the anxious actors to be less accepted by their friends than the confident actors, and this in turn was related to lower liking of the anxious actors. Children recognize that a friend’s status will influence their own status. Anxious children may be less well-liked because their peers are aware that it may negatively affect their own social standing.

How you can help:

  • Suggest orienting a play date around games and activities that your child enjoys and excels in. Your child will feel more comfortable and will look and feel good about him or herself.
  • Suggest inviting a child home that your child really likes. It may be easier for them to develop a friendship away from the classroom and playground. Once that friendship has blossomed, it may provide a bridge to broader peer acceptance later on.

It is the Quality of our Friendships That Count

While anxiety may make it a little harder for your child to make friends, these simple tips may help your child move beyond the quick negative judgments that some kids can make, and allow other kids to get to know him or her better. Research suggests that it is the quality, and not the quantity, of our friendships that is most important to our well-being.

Research Note: This study was conducted with child actors, so results may differ for “real” children. Furthermore, the relatively small sample size of child raters means that researchers could not rigorously test the questionnaire.

Lecturer at University of New South Wales

Jess Baker, Ph.D., is a newly-appointed Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Her research focuses on the friendships of children with anxiety disorders, and she has published numerous high-quality papers on this topic. Dr. Baker collaborates on mental health research with Australian-born refugee and migrant populations. Additionally, she leads a team developing an educational program on dementia for children, emphasizing their experiences.


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