When Children and Teens Have Social Anxiety, How Can Parents Help?

Excluded childPaula is a pretty, bright and talented high school student.  She is anxious about going out, even with people she knows, believing she might say the wrong thing or do something to embarrass herself.  Sometimes she even worries about whether her friends are really her friends.

Shawn is a good athlete. He mostly keeps to himself and has twice turned down chances to be a team captain for soccer.    As much as he would like to have fun with the guys on his team, who not only respect his skills on the field but like him and want to be friends, his worry about saying something stupid stops him from socializing with them.

Marcy is an 11-year-old middle school student.  She worries constantly that she has said the wrong thing in front of her peers or in class.  She freezes if the teacher calls on her and doesn’t even like to eat in front of her friends.

All three of these youngsters have Social Anxiety Disorder (link to blog Understanding Social Anxiety Disorder, January 17, 2018).  Their symptoms go beyond normal shyness and have a significant negative impact on their lives socially and academically.

So what is Social Anxiety?

*Marked fear or anxiety about social situations where others may be observing you.  These situations can include talking to someone, meeting a new person, talking or giving a speech in front of others,  or eating and drinking in front of others.

*You feel you will show anxiety symptoms or will be judged negatively by others, and end up being embarrassed or humiliated.  Perhaps you even worry that you will offend others and perhaps be excluded.

*You either avoid social situations or endure them with intense anxiety because even the most casual encounter can provoke fear or worry.

One of the dangers of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is that as teens head into adulthood, they will often choose career opportunities that require less social contact with others, and may not take full advantage of opportunities that are available to them.  A science major who is anxious may not apply to medical school but instead may choose a solitary job in a lab. A young woman interested in social justice may avoid applying to law school and may work instead in a solitary administrative job well below her capability.   Sometimes teens who are pathologically shy (another way of saying they have SAD) may even avoid getting jobs because they don’t feel able to deal with others on a daily basis.

Parents and teachers can be important in identifying and helping children and teens to overcome their social fears.  But before they can do that, they must distinguish between children who are shy and those with a social phobia (the former name of Social Anxiety Disorder.)

Social Anxiety Disorder is sometimes called the silent disorder because it can be present for years before it is diagnosed.  Children learn how to avoid being the center of attention, may tell their parents that they do not want to go out with friends, and avoid situations that require social interaction – in other words, they find ways to keep others from recognizing their social discomfort.  Because most of these children are not problems behaviorally and may be happy around their families and loved ones, parents may not notice their degree of anxiety, or may just write their child’s behavior off as shyness.  But shy children do not worry about being humiliated and embarrassed as SAD kids do, and don’t go to the same lengths to avoid social situations.  They engage with other kids, but at a lower level of intensity, one that is comfortable for them.

What are some warning signs of Social Anxiety Disorder?

*Dropping out of activities like sports or clubs

*Worrying a lot about doing or saying something “stupid”

* Discomfort about speaking to peers

*Avoiding situations where new people may be present

*For some children, poor eye contact can be a sign of SAD

*Blushing when spoken to or mumbling when required to answer a question

If you notice these symptoms, a doctor or a mental health professional can help you determine if Social Anxiety Disorder is present.  Remember, too, that the shyness that is normal in a two-year-old is not developmentally appropriate in a 12-year old.

Parents should also be careful not to “over help” their anxious child.  Enabling a child by always answering for him, or always working out problems with a teacher, really just reinforces more avoidance for the child.  This kind of misdirected protectiveness just enables continued fearfulness and doesn’t help the child to develop any social competency.

The only way to get over fears is to enter and deal with the situations which cause the anxiety.  In therapy, this is called exposure. Parents can be sensitive to their child’s fears and still encourage them to go beyond what the child feels is a safe boundary, supporting the child while exposing him to things that worry him.    In some ways, it is no different than encouraging a child who has learned to ski, and is improving, to try the next level of trail.

It is also important for parents to recognize that not every child wants to be the life of the party.  We tend to value social outgoing-ness above many other qualities.  If your child is an introvert, learn to appreciate his or her ability to be observant, to be self-directed, and recognize that he or she may not feel the need for a large circle of friends.  Also, remember that introverts are not necessarily anxious around others.  They are just more comfortable with their own company and feel less need for approval from others.

There are many effective ways of helping children with Social Anxiety Disorder.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help a child challenge frightening thoughts and develop skills that encourage moving toward, instead of away from, anxiety-provoking situations.