Social anxiety disorder (also known as SAD for short) involves a pervasive and strong fear of social situations. This fear causes the person to experience physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and as a result, they try to avoid social situations to control this anxiety. “The distinction between an anxiety disorder and just having normal anxiety is whether your emotions are causing a lot of suffering and dysfunction,” says Sally Winston, PsyD. In adults this disorder can have a strong negative impact their lives and may lead to other mental health concerns such as low confidence, loneliness, low self worth and depression (head over to our other blog on SAD [Social anxiety: when it is more than just pre-party jitters] for more information on this disorder in adults).
For children, SAD can be just as detrimental, if not even more crippling. This is because through childhood and adolescence people learn how to interact with others, begin to develop friendships and romantic relationships. Without these experiences, it is very difficult for the child to develop a lasting sense of identity, confidence, and self-worth.
How is social anxiety in children different from adults?
Although the overall idea of SAD is the same in children and adults in that it is a fear of social situations and the physical symptoms and types of thoughts experienced are the same (see these in our other blog on SAD [Social anxiety: when it is more than just pre-party jitters]), it can manifest differently in children and because of this, it’s often difficult to notice. Children with SAD don’t tend to stand out because this is what the disorder does; it makes the person not want to call attention to themselves. As children are beginning to learn how to interact with others, they can become really good at being able to avoid social situations without it appearing obvious. They are often also the quiet, well-behaved students at home and school and because there doesn’t seem to be a “problem” from the outside eye, SAD in children tends to get overlooked.
Another problem is that often SAD in children will get labeled as “shyness” which is a temperament, not a mental health concern. However, you can differentiate the two in children who are shy generally want to interact with their peers and can do so but just take a little longer to adjust and “warm up”. Whereas children experiencing SAD will do anything they can to avoid interacting with others and will become very upset when they have to. It is important to note that many of the symptoms of SAD are also just part of shyness, but it is when the child’s shyness is beginning to impact their social connections in their life significantly that it might be becoming a problem.
So what are the symptoms of SAD in children?
Children or teens experiencing SAD may:
- Avoid speaking to teachers or peers (such as not answering questions in class).
- Look away when they are being spoken to, mumble or speak very quietly.
- Shake or go red when in social situations.
- Complain of feeling sick during or leading up to social situations (such as complaining of stomach aches on school mornings).
- Throw tantrums when having to engage with new people (such as the first day of school).
- Try to spend most of their time at home, stay away from their friends and keep to their room.
How can I help a child or teen who is experiencing SAD?
The first step as a parent is recognizing that something is going on and you must have done that since you’re reading this blog.
Next, much like SAD in adults, the aim is to help the child/teen teach their brain that they don’t need to be afraid of social situations. This can be done through a combination of increasing their skills and confidence in managing their anxiety symptoms and slowly giving them the chance to have positive social experiences. This is always best done with a professional through counseling. There is a range of psychological treatments that a qualified professional can provide to help you and your child through this. Contact your GP to find out how to access a psychologist or psychiatrist and they can help you with this.
Are there things I can do at home and school though?
First, Help your child to understand what is happening and the connection between their symptoms of anxiety and their fear of social situations. Let them know that “this is okay!” Normalizing the anxiety they are experiencing will help them feel less afraid of it. “It can help clients become an observing witness to the fluctuations of thought, realize they are not controlled by them, and consequently reduce symptoms,” says Meredith Strauss, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating anxiety and depression.
Next, above I spoke of increasing their skills and then giving them positive social experiences. You can do this in a number of ways:
- Help your child increase their confidence in social situations by helping them “practice” for these at home.
- Start to ask your child around some of the thoughts they have in social situations (like “they’ll laugh at me”) to encourage them to examine how accurate these are.
- Try and encourage them to participate in social situations (starting small and working your way up to bigger groups).
- Be encouraging always, but not forceful and even if they have a negative experience, praise them for trying (because for someone with SAD, just trying is a great achievement).
- Talk to the school about ways they can support your child.
Although SAD can be a very difficult thing to experience, with your guidance and support children can easily overcome SAD and grow into confident adults. As Kevin Chapman sais, “even though anxiety disorders are difficult, they’re one of the most treatable disorders.” Well done on recognizing your child might be struggling and taking the time to learn how to help them!