Have you ever heard the myth that social anxiety is just shyness? and that it will go away on its own? This is a common misconception.
Social anxiety is a common mental health concern among children and teenagers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 7.1% of U.S. children aged 3–17 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, with social anxiety being the third most common type of anxiety disorder in children.
While shyness is a normal developmental phase for many children, social anxiety disorder is a more significant mental health problem, and without intervention, children with social anxiety disorder may experience long-term difficulties in school, relationships, and overall quality of life.
Social anxiety is a mental health condition that affects children and teens. It is characterized by excessive fear or worry about social situations in which a person may be exposed to possible scrutiny by others. In this article, I will discuss the symptoms, triggers, and treatment options for social anxiety in children and teens.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety in Children
Children with social anxiety may display a variety of symptoms, which can vary depending on the situation.
- Avoiding social situations: children with social anxiety may avoid parties, social events, or even playdates.
- Fear of judgment: Children with social anxiety may fear being judged by others and may avoid expressing themselves in public. Physical symptoms: children may experience physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, or sweating in social situations.
- Difficulty making friends: children with social anxiety may have difficulty making friends or maintaining relationships.
- Extreme self-consciousness: children with social anxiety may be excessively self-conscious and worry about embarrassing themselves in social situations.
- Avoiding eye contact is a common sign of social anxiety or shyness. Individuals who struggle with social anxiety may feel uncomfortable or nervous when making direct eye contact with others, as they fear being judged or scrutinized. They may also avoid eye contact as a way to protect themselves from potential rejection or negative feedback.
- Difficulty speaking up or expressing themselves in social situations: Individuals who struggle with social anxiety may fear being judged or ridiculed if they speak up, which can lead to them avoiding social situations altogether.
Triggers of Social Anxiety in Children
There is no one specific trigger for social anxiety in children, but it often stems from a combination of factors. Common triggers include:
- Negative past experiences, such as bullying or ridicule, which can damage a child’s self-esteem and make them fearful of future social situations.
- Overprotective or critical parents, who may inadvertently reinforce a child’s fears and prevent them from developing social skills.
- Genetics: Studies have shown that social anxiety can run in families and be inherited.
- Stressful life events, such as moving to a new school, divorce, or illness, can increase a child’s anxiety levels.
- Peer pressure and social comparison can trigger social anxiety in teens and kids.
- Family dynamics and parenting styles can also contribute to social anxiety in teens and kids if they feel unsupported or excessively criticized by their family.
- Traumatic experiences or negative life changes, such as bullying or a difficult move to a new school, can trigger social anxiety in teens and kids.
How to Treat Social Anxiety in Children
The good news is that social anxiety in children and teens is a treatable condition. Early intervention and appropriate treatment can help children develop coping skills, improve their self-esteem, and manage their anxiety symptoms effectively. Here are some of the evidence-based treatment options for social anxiety in children and teens:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps children and teens identify negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their social anxiety and teaches them coping strategies to manage their symptoms.
- Exposure therapy is a method where a child gradually learns to confront and overcome their fears in a safe and controlled environment.
- Medication: In some cases, a doctor may recommend medication to help alleviate anxiety symptoms. Antidepressant medications can be helpful for some children and teens with social anxiety disorder, particularly those with severe symptoms.
- Social skills training: This type of therapy helps children and teens improve their social skills and build confidence in social situations.
- Parental involvement: Parents can play a crucial role in helping their children with social anxiety disorder by providing emotional support, modeling positive social behaviors, and advocating for their child’s needs in school and other environments.
Addressing the Root Cause
While the above interventions can be effective in treating the symptoms of social anxiety, it’s important to address the root cause of the disorder. This includes:
- Identifying triggers: Understanding what triggers a child’s anxiety can help parents and therapists work towards developing coping strategies.
- Encouraging independence: Allowing children to make their own decisions and mistakes can help build confidence and reduce anxiety.
- Creating a supportive environment: Providing a nurturing, non-judgmental environment can help children feel safe and secure.
How to Address Social Anxiety:
It is important to note that addressing social anxiety is a collaborative process between the individual and their support system. There are effective strategies for addressing social anxiety and improving social skills.
- Encourage open communication and understanding of social anxiety with loved ones and professionals
- Seek professional help from a mental health provider trained in social anxiety treatment
- Create a plan for how to address social anxiety, including exposure to feared social situations, practice of social skills and techniques for managing anxiety
- Build a support system of family, friends or support groups to provide encouragement and guidance
How to Heal Social Anxiety:
Healing from social anxiety may take time and require ongoing effort, but it is possible. Some tips may include:
- Celebrating small successes and progress made towards overcoming social anxiety
- Practicing self-care such as exercise, healthy eating and sleep habits
- Learning to recognize and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs
- Continuing regular therapy or support to ensure ongoing progress and improvement
Social anxiety is not just shyness
It can be a challenging experience for children and teenagers, but it is treatable with the right interventions.
If your child is experiencing symptoms of social anxiety disorder, it’s important to seek professional help to address the root cause and promote healing.
- National Institute of Mental Health (2019): Any Anxiety Disorder Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
- American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) American Psychiatric Association.