Children don’t like to feel shy or worry about what others think of them. Most children would love to not worry about getting embarrassed in front of others anymore. They would love to be able to just relax and feel more confidant and comfortable. Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of anxiety altogether. Our nervous systems are designed to help us determine when we need to be alert in social situations. However, for some children, they experience such high anxiety that they avoid social situations altogether. Social anxiety in kids can be a debilitating problem that can affect children throughout their lives.
Social anxiety disorder, sometimes called social phobia, is a condition characterized by excessive self-consciousness that goes beyond common shyness. Kids with social anxiety disorder are so worried about being judged negatively by others that they are terrified of doing or saying anything that may cause humiliation. Social anxiety disorder mostly affects adolescents, although it can also begin in childhood.
What does social anxiety look like in children?
For many children who suffer from social anxiety, it might appear they are excessively shy. A child who suffers from social anxiety will be very fearful of criticism and might say things such as, “What if I say something stupid?” or “What if I say the wrong thing?” The child’s fear of being embarrassed in social situations or being humiliated takes over.
A younger child might even throw a temper tantrum or cry when confronted with a situation that terrifies her. Your child might appear oppositional, although this is not the case. He is simply afraid to take part in whatever situation is terrifying him.
A young child can also exhibit physical symptoms from fear, such as shaking, sweating or shortness of breath. These physical symptoms can interfere with your child’s daily life. These feelings may occur right before the fearful situation or well in advance.
What are the types of social anxiety?
There are two different types of social anxiety that children can struggle with. The first type focuses on performance and affects children when they need to do something such as speak in front of other children. The second type focuses on their interactions with others and affects children when they are dealing with different social situations. This can affect the child even if she is not the center of attention. An example of this type of anxiety could be a fear of going to school, a fear of eating in front of others, or even a fear of using the bathroom with other children around.
Social anxiety vs. shyness
It is important to distinguish some differences between social anxiety and shyness. Children with shyness can be uncomfortable around others, but they tend to not avoid these situations that make them feel uncomfortable. When your child suffers from social anxiety, his life will be disrupted by it. The social anxiety will often interfere with school or social relationships with peers. Children with social anxiety might also try to avoid social events, which can ultimately have a negative impact on their quality of life.
How can you help your child if he/she suffers from social anxiety?
If you think that your child might be suffering from social anxiety, you can start by consulting with the school counselor to let him/her know what is going on. If your child appears to need additional help outside of the school, it is important to note that children often respond well to therapy, with the goal being behavior modification. A clinician can help your child improve her social and coping skills during the situations that tend to be anxiety provoking. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can also help to teach children that they are in control of their anxiety and behaviors that they wish they could get rid of. Through therapy, your child can learn how to overcome his fears and work towards changing the thought patterns that are causing him high levels of anxiety.
Some hands-on tips for parents:
- Try to help your child find downtime in her schedule to make time to see friends in an unstructured manner.
- Encourage your child to set up play dates with other children and to get the phone numbers of classmates prior to summer break.
- Try role-playing simple situations with your child to help him practice handling certain social situations.
- Let your child know that is perfectly normal to feel a little nervous about speaking to new people for the first time and that eventually this anxiety will decrease or go away.
- Encourage your child to develop a hobby such as playing a sport, taking dance, getting involved in boy or girl scouts, etc. These activities can help your child meet other children who have similar interests as she does.
- Be sure to praise your child’s successes in social situations and let her know how proud you are of her. Try to be specific about which behaviors you are most proud of and let your child know this.
- It is very important that children learn the skill of relaxation. Try helping your child learn how to relax and calm down prior to entering into a situation that he is fearful of.
- Try helping your child to become more self-aware of what causes her social anxiety. You can do this by keeping track of your child’s anxiety and then discussing it with her.
- Freeing your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome your Child’s Fears, Worries and Phobias by Tamar Chansky Ph.D.
- What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews
- Say Goodbye to Being Shy: A Workbook to Help Kids Overcome Shyness by Richard Brozovich Ph.D. and Linda Chase LMSW
Dr. Allison Johnson, PhD, LAC, of Dr. Johnson Counseling Services, LLC, is a therapist and educational psychologist who specializes in therapy for children, adolescents and adults in Bergen County. She is a Licensed Associate Counselor, a certified school counselor, teacher and school administrator who focuses on helping adolescents and young adults with issues related to body image and self-esteem, relationships, anger management, coping and stress management, transition, and career development and exploration. Additionally, she has a great deal of experience working with at-risk adolescents on an academic, personal, social and emotional level. Dr. Johnson earned her doctoral degree from Fordham University.
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