Imagine being a child so shy you can’t approach another on the playground, or being so terrified that someone might ask you a question.
The idea that some children live with such anxiety motivated Dr. Deborah Beidel, director of UCF’s doctoral program in clinical psychology, as she worked with families who want their children to have a normal, happy childhood.
“Socially anxious children have a unique struggle,” she said. “They can’t engage other children and are often afraid of anyone who might try to even talk to them. It affects every aspect of their lives.”
Helping children with social anxiety of this magnitude is the focus of a National Institute of Mental Health study Beidel and her team are working on using virtual reality combined with traditional therapies to coach shy kids how to master social situations.
Using a program on an iPad, shy children can walk through certain social situations in a virtual world and interact with artificially intelligent avatars. Through these interactions, they learn how to better socialize with children and adults.
“With this kind of therapy, it can be difficult to recreate real-life situations where these kids can interact with their more social peers,” said Beidel. The virtual environment program replaces the traditional meet-ups with other kids – at least for a while – and helps therapists target specific elements during sessions.
While live-interactions with other kids aren’t completely factored out of the therapy, it does help families use the program for ”homework” and provides an opportunity for practice before attempting real-life encounters.
The kids in the study receive an iPad to use as part of their therapy. The program, which takes kids to a fictional elementary, moves the users along a school campus – all the while running into adults and other children. After they have learned a social skill in a traditional group therapy session, they practice the skills in the virtual school.
The program gives shy children options to “teach” them proper interactions with others in a safe environment. They work through the mechanics of social skills – things as simple as saying “good morning” to effectively telling a bully to leave them alone.
Currently, Beidel and her team are seeking families in the Orlando area whose children suffer from severe anxiety disorder and who are interested in this no-cost treatment program. They also are looking for boys and girls to be peer mentors – kids who can help their shy counterparts in live interactions. The researchers usually bring the kids together in social situations, events held at playgrounds, parks, bowling or miniature golf, for example.
“We are always looking for middle school-age boys and girls,” said Karen Kildron, the program’s coordinator, who works closely with Beidel.
One such peer mentor is Corbin Laslo, a 10-year-old from Winter Park who has been helping other boys his age who are extremely shy.
“I feel pretty good when I do it,” he said. “And everyone is super nice.”
Among Corbin’s tasks: help his shy ”partner” talk more and engage in play.
“I just try to get them to talk to me, and after a little while, they usually do,” he said.
Therapists guide the peer mentors, giving them tasks such as making sure their shy partners ask “W” questions – who, what, when, where and why – for example.
Corbin’s mother, Leslie Laslo, said participating in these activities is helpful for her son, too, because he’s made new friends and learned how to help others.
“He’s enjoyed it very much,” she said. “It’s a really nice way for kids to get involved.”
If you would like more information on how to have your child participate in the study or if your child is interested in being a peer mentor, call Karen Kildron at 407-823-4254. Peer mentors receive volunteer hours for participating.