It isn’t uncommon for children and teens to be anxious about social situations and interactions as they move through the different stages from child to adult. Given that their bodies are constantly changing, the hormonal effects of puberty, and the rapid succession of milestones these adolescents are going through, it is no wonder that they don’t always feel comfortable and worry about how other people are perceiving them. But for some adolescents and teens, the common anxiety experienced at these stages can become all encompassing and even debilitating. These adolescents may develop social phobias, also referred to as social anxiety disorder.
For teens with the social phobia, social anxiety disorder, the fear of rejection, humiliation, being embarrassed, or having others develop a negative opinion of them becomes excessive. This makes anything requiring social interaction or that singles out the child a challenge and can lead to avoiding interactions altogether. Adolescents with social anxiety disorder have difficulty meeting new people, standing up to give a report or solve a problem in front of the class, participating in physical activities and sporting events, and even doing things that seem simple like eating in public.
For parents, it is important to remember that children with social anxiety disorder may respond to situations disproportionately. In situations where they are not faced with any actual physical danger, they may respond as though they are and experience the same physiological changes like sweaty palms, a racing heart rate, and the activation of their fight or flight reaction. These can be actual Panic Attacks. Simply telling the teen that they don’t need to be afraid may not alleviate the fear they are experiencing.
An estimate from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that about 12% of those adolescents who call themselves shy may actually have social phobias. One of the primary ways to differentiate between typical teenage shyness and social anxiety is that shyness doesn’t generally lead to debilitation or consistent avoidance behavior. The primary symptoms of social anxiety are:
- Excessive fear and/or anxiety of any individual or group performance like presenting an oral report or participating in a concert with the school chorus
- Intense fear of social situations and difficulties with social interactions like meeting new people, unstructured conversations, and talking on the phone
- Social isolation
- Inability to actively participate in conversations with peers
- Excessive concern about how others perceive them and fear related to the negative opinions of others
- Fear of being humiliated or embarrassed which often leads to anxiety about being called on in class or having to participate in classes like gym or music
- Panic attacks resulting from social situations or experiences (Physical symptoms like a racing heart rate, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, feeling nauseous, sweating, or blushing)
There are no specific causes of the social phobia, social anxiety disorder. Like many other anxiety disorders, it develops as a result of a combination of factors including genetics, environment, and life experiences. Some people may be genetically predisposed to a certain type of temperament, like being shy. Factors in the environment have a big influence on our perspective and socially anxious parents or siblings model those behaviors for the children and teens in their lives. If a child watches a parent continually avoid a specific situation or sees them experience intense fear or anxiety about social interactions, it can reinforce any social anxiety the child is already experiencing. Life experiences also play a big part in the development of an anxiety disorder. A teenager who is shy and self-conscious may be more likely to develop social anxiety if he is bullied or ridiculed at school.
Most social anxiety disorder can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy that seeks to address the sources of the anxiety and teaches other strategies for managing these kinds of fears. It may also be helpful for adolescents and teens with the condition to participate in group therapy with others in their age group as this can provide a safe environment that enables them to build social skills and practice positive interactions.
Many adolescents and teens with social anxiety may also have another condition. It is important to the success of treatment to know if there are other co-existing conditions so that they can be treated appropriately.
People with social anxiety can learn to manage their fear and make great strides in participating more fully in their own lives. Parents can support their adolescents by getting them the right help, offering encouragement, and helping celebrate small successes that will build confidence and self esteem.