Public speaking and meeting new people can be a major source of stress and anxiety–one that prevents us from speaking out, trying new things, or nurturing important relationships. When such feelings reach a level so severe that they interfere with daily functioning, it’s what is known as social anxiety disorder. If you observe signs of a socially awkward child, you might actually be looking at social anxiety disorder in children. The symptoms may display differently depending on the age of the child, making it tricky to diagnose. This article will cover the basics of what social anxiety is, how it manifests in children, and what parents can do to help a socially anxious child.
What Is Social Anxiety?
To put it simply, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is an extreme fear of rejection, humiliation, and otherwise being judged that results in afflicted individuals withdrawing from social situations or enduring them but experiencing extreme distress. The key criteria for diagnosing SAD is that these feelings persist for at least six months, and occur consistently in multiple settings with peers.
Recognizing Social Anxiety Disorder In Children
Social anxiety is the third most common type of social anxiety disorder in the United States. While it is estimated to affect approximately 7% of all adults, it was found to affect little over 9% of adolescents between the ages of 13-18 (though it has also been diagnosed in children as young as eight years old). Early childhood shyness is sometimes a precursor–but not always, which is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to diagnose early on.
Many of the most easily identifiable signs of SAD are ones that might otherwise be passed off simply as childish behavior: Crying, throwing tantrums, or hiding behind a parent’s leg. However, it can be challenging to recognize as the social settings where a child’s anxiety would be triggered are places where their behavior can’t easily be observed, such as at school or a friend’s house.
Signs & Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder In Children
Social anxiety disorder symptoms can be both behavioral and physical. Physical signs of distress will typically occur during or immediately before some sort of social interaction. These include blushing, sweating, rigid posture, difficulty speaking, shortness of breath, stomach aches, nausea, trembling, and racing pulse. Behavioral signs can be:
- A child that has few friends and has difficulty or is reluctant to take part in group activities.
- When they do take part, they are noticeably quiet and reserved and try to avoid bringing attention to themselves
- Avoidant behavior (i.e. Refusing to attend birthday parties, frequently asking to stay home from school, reluctance to speak on the phone)
- Fear of reading aloud or asking questions in class
- Sits alone at places like the cafeteria or library
- Avoids eye contact
A parent or guardian must learn to recognize when these feelings go beyond a normal level of shyness or self-consciousness (because everyone experiences some degree of these feelings at some point in their lives). If left untreated, a child experiencing social anxiety disorder may suffer academically and fail to develop necessary social skills which could exacerbate the condition in adulthood.
It’s important to note that these symptoms may vary depending on the type of social anxiety a child has. Performance social anxiety disorder is the specific fear of speaking or performing in public, rather than a fear of general social interactions.
How To Help A Child With Social Anxiety
Children and adolescents may not be forthcoming about their anxiety simply because they’re unaware that what they’re feeling is anything abnormal. A parent or guardian who observes this kind of behavior should take initiative rather than wait for the child to bring something up (which they are unlikely to do). Instead, speaking about their worries can provide a better framework for them to view their feelings, which then gives them a better chance of managing and understanding their emotional responses to social triggers.
- Encourage avoidance. Allowing a child to frequently skip school or social gatherings (like birthday parties) is a short-term solution that can backfire. It can reinforce feelings of anxiety and cause them to miss out on valuable social practice.
- Speak for your child, this enables their avoidant behavior.
- Scold, shame, or force a child for their anxious reaction.
- Share your own instances of social fears and how you overcame them. This will demonstrate that it’s normal to feel nervous and okay to talk about those feelings.
- Start small with the stepladder approach. Make it a goal to accomplish smaller social interactions such as saying hello or goodbye.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation can help relieve the physical symptoms.
- Speak with a mental health professional if you think their anxiety is negatively affecting their school performance.