Social anxiety in kids can impair their functioning and sabotage individual potential. Learn how to recognize this potentially debilitating condition and strategies for overcoming social anxiety.
On the surface, social anxiety may seem like a relatively minor concern. After all, many kids are shy at some point. And, it’s either not that big of a deal, or they grow out of it. But actual social anxiety goes far beyond simple shyness.
It can create extreme distress within the kids who have it, and interfere with their ability to function in key areas of life. And, left unaddressed, it can impair their long term potential. Find out what you need to know this condition, and how you can help your child.
WHAT IS SOCIAL ANXIETY?
Everyone had just finished eating when the staff came out singing “Happy Birthday,” and carrying a beautifully decorated cake lit up with candles. The family and friends at the table joyously joined in smiling and clapping for the 4-year-old birthday boy. But he sat stunned. Staring at the approaching cake and everyone watching him. He promptly burst into tears. Yelling “no, no, no!” as he tried to hide under the table.
At bottom, social anxiety is extreme and excessive self-consciousness. It involves intense fear and worry about how others see you, and the possibility of being harshly judged. Fears about making mistakes that are grossly disproportionate to the situation or potential consequences. And, these are fears and worries that are so strong that they interfere with some level of basic functioning.
This condition is most typically first seen in kids between the ages of 8 and 15. But it can arise earlier.
Depending on the child, social anxiety may be limited to specific situations. Like eating in public or speaking in class. Or, it may be more generalized and pervasive. Such that a child has a difficult time with most interactions that involve people outside of his or her family circle.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 7 percent of Americans experience social anxiety disorder. And, it’s a condition that, left unaddressed, can last for many years and interfere with a person’s ability to reach his full potential in life.
SYMPTOMS OF SOCIAL ANXIETY IN CHILDREN
Although social anxiety in kids is most often noticed in tweens and teens, it can strike younger children as well, including preschoolers.
The official diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder in kids basically includes six elements:
- A marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the child is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.
This anxiety must occur in setting involving other kids, and not just situations with adults. And, “social situations” includes a range of social interactions such as meeting new people, having a conversation, and eating and drinking in public. Or, performance situations such as giving a speech.
- The child fears that he will be judged and negatively evaluated. Either for his or actions or because people can see that he’s anxious.
In other words, that he or she will do something embarrassing or humiliating, or that his anxiety symptoms (like blushing, sweating or stammering) will be embarrassing or humiliating. And, that others will react to this by rejecting him. Or, they will otherwise find it offensive in some way.
- The social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety.
For kids, their fear or anxiety may result in crying or tantrums. They may hide or become excessively clingy. Or, they may fail to talk in social situations.
- The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and the potential consequences of being judged.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
As with other types of anxiety in kids, social anxiety may result in physical signs such as rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, or nausea.
If your child has social anxiety disorder, you may also see many of the following signs:
- Irrational fears that people are watching her (when they’re probably not paying attention at all)
- Intense dread of upcoming social situations that starts days or weeks in advance
- A desire to be invisible
- Avoiding school
- Dropping out of groups like scouts or a church choir
- Refusing to participate in extracurricular activities
- Hypersensitive to perceived judgment or criticism (e.g., flying off the handle in response to mild correction or constructive comment)
- Loathes being the focus of attention
- Excessive concerns with personal appearance
- Can’t raise hand in class, even when they know the answer
- Feels like their friends don’t really like them or secretly judge them
- Dramatic changes in personality or demeanor between home and new situations outside the home (e.g., funny, boisterous child becomes a mute statute)
- Fear of using public restroom
Distinguishing Social Anxiety and Shyness
It can be easy to mistake social anxiety in a child with common shyness. But shyness has more to do with temperament. While a shy child may be somewhat reserved and slow to warm up in certain situations, he usually does warm up. But that’s not the case for kids with social anxiety disorders.
One potential distinguishing factor between common shyness and social anxiety in kids is the child’s own view of the situation. A “shy” kid may be more likely to accept that his reservedness or introversion is an inherent part of his personality. The shyness itself is not generally a source of distress. And, he can function reasonably well in the world. It won’t usually create any significant obstacles in moving through the day or moving through life.
In contrast, someone suffering from social anxiety will likely have negative feelings about this anxiety, and see it as something defective. And, the fact that he has these anxieties and fears can create still more anxiety and fear. Because he’s embarrassed about it and concerned that other people may notice and judge him.
POTENTIAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL ANXIETY
Social anxiety in kids can be progressive and go unnoticed for years. And, unaddressed, a social anxiety disorder can lead to many negative lifetime consequences:
- A lack of meaningful personal supportive relationships
- Impaired academic success
- Artificially limited career choices
- Alcohol and substance abuse
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts
OVERCOMING SOCIAL ANXIETY: HOW PARENTS CAN HELP
If you think your child suffers from social anxiety, you should try to help sooner rather than later. Intervening now can avert more significant consequences later. Here are some strategies for parents to help with overcoming social anxiety.
Challenging (Rather Than Avoiding) Anxious Situations
When faced with situations that you know cause your child significant distress, your first inclination may be to eliminate those stressors to the extent practical. And, avoidance can often be the path of least resistance. But this could possibly be the worst thing you could do. Experts say that continuing to avoid situations that make your child feel anxious actually reinforces those anxieties and makes them grow stronger. Instead, you should try to help your child challenge those fears, even if only in a small baby steps.
Skipping social events or extracurricular activities can be an obvious avoidance measure. But there are other ways you may be facilitating avoidance without even consciously realizing it.
For instance, do you routinely speak for your child in public, even when he is the one being addressed? Are you always ordering for both of you in restaurants? Intervening in situations to deflect the focus of attention?
One of the best methods of overcoming social anxiety is having successful exposures that can build on one another. If you can help your child do the things that create anxiety, it can help him learn that the worst case scenarios floating around his head usually don’t happen. And, even if things don’t go as you’d like, it helps him to see that the world doesn’t end.
Practice & Role Playing
You can also help your child with overcoming social anxiety by role playing the anxiety inducing scenarios. Or, by staging some kind of dress rehearsal for an upcoming event. By helping your child walk through various ways that the situation could play out, it can increase his comfort level and lessen the anxiety.
Likewise, you can practice what to say and do when entering new social situations. The idea is to make the experience less overwhelming because your child feels like he knows what to expect and has the tools to navigate.
Cultivate Relaxation And Coping Skills
Cultivate some go-to relaxation or coping techniques that can be used before facing anxious situations. Teach your child to recognize the physical symptoms of anxiety and help him work on simple techniques like breathing exercises or guided imagery for calming anxiety.
Transforming Negative Thoughts
Help your child learn to identify irrational negative thoughts and replace them with more realistic positive or self-affirming thoughts.
Patterns of Negative Thinking
Many kids with intense social anxiety get caught up in loops of negative thinking that reinforces and exacerbates their anxiety. Some typical buckets of negative thinking:
- It will be a catastrophe!
Always assuming that a social interaction or social situation ends in a negative outcome.
“No one will talk to me.” “No one will play with me.”
“If I try to give a speech, I won’t remember my words. It will be a disaster. And everyone will laugh at me.”
- All negativity is about me.
Believing that perceived negative moods or affects are directed at or because of them. So, a friend who is distracted during a conversation must mean that she’s really mad at your child.
“She hates me.” Or, “I must have done something to offend her.”
- Everyone thinks badly of me.
“I tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and dropped my books, now everyone in the class thinks I’m a klutz.”
- Magnifying negative possibilities out of proportion.
“If I raise my hand and get the answer wrong, the teacher will think I’m an idiot.”
Negative Thinking Challenged
Try to help your child shine the bright light of reality on these thoughts and see things in a more balanced manner.
Did anyone really notice that I tripped and dropped my books? People stumble all the time, does anyone really care? If anyone did notice, would they even remember 5 minutes later?
If your friend was distracted, could it be that she wasn’t thinking about you at all? Are there other things that could be bothering her?
More Balanced, Positive Thinking
Once a negative belief settles in, it can be difficult to chase it away without help. Unchallenged, people are more likely to focus on evidence that reinforces that belief and filter out or discount evidence that’s inconsistent.
Help your child identify evidence that the negative belief is not true. And, help your child to recognize that even if a negative belief is true, the results probably aren’t as bad as she thinks. Or, that even if bad things happen, there are opportunities to move on to a better situation. And, help her practice replace the negative thoughts with positive ones that are just as likely if not more likely to be true.
If I practice enough, I probably won’t forget my speech. And, if I do forget part of it, I can take a deep breath and keep going. Most people aren’t going to know whether I missed some words or not.
If your child can cultivate a habit of identifying, challenging and replacing negative thoughts, over time, it can help her move past her anxieties.
Promote Problem solving skills
Social anxiety in kids often leads to a pattern of avoidance behavior. However, rather than avoiding problems, you should try to help your child learn to solve problems or identify potential solutions. The key here is helping your child develop his own problem solving skills, not trying to solve the problems for him.
Help your child brainstorm possible alternatives for addressing a situation that could make him feel better about a situation rather than avoiding it. So, for instance, if he is worried about attending a particular event, perhaps he could go earlier or plan to go with a buddy.
Or, if she’s concerned about speaking in class, perhaps she could practice in a mirror or you could record her with your cell phone. (so she can see how she actually looks and sounds rather than what’s imagined).
Strengthen Friendship skills
Friendship skills can also help with overcoming social anxiety in kids. Help your child develop habits or skills that will help them navigate their peer relationships.
So, for instance, help your child come up with 2 or 3 things to say when joining a group or starting a conversation. Practice saying friendly greetings that invite an engaged response. Or, practice listening to what another person is saying and identifying one or two follow up questions based on what was said. So that he shows interest and engagement.
For more tips on helping your child grow and nurture friendships, check out our post on social skills training.
Professional Interventions For Social Anxiety In Children
If none of your attempts to help seem to be working, or your child seems to have anxieties bigger than your family can manage, you should not hesitate to seek professional help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques are commonly used to treat social anxiety disorders.
For more information about evidence-based treatment options for social anxiety and resources that may be available in your area, check out the National Social Anxiety Center.
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