Childhood and adolescence is a period of transition, where the primary focus shifts from pleasing parents and adults to placing more emphasis on gaining approval from their peer group. It is common and quite normal for youth to experience anxiety about how others perceive them. However, for some, this anxiety can become overwhelming and impact the ability of the child to function normally. When these feelings are characterized by an intense fear of being judged or scrutinized by others to the extent that it hinders one from engaging in necessary and desired activities due to the fear of embarrassment, the youth may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety.
Social Anxiety Disorder, previously known as social phobia, occurs in about 9% of youth aged 13 to 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The onset of social anxiety in children typically occurs between the ages of 8 and 15.
Children can adeptly conceal their feelings initially, making it challenging for parents and teachers to detect any underlying issues. It can be difficult for parents to know what may be behind a change in their child's behavior and mood. Understanding the signs of social anxiety and how to talk with your child about anxiety can help parents identify if their child is struggling with these symptoms.
Understanding Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is an overwhelming fear of social situations accompanied by the dread of judgment or scrutiny by others. It extends beyond the usual shyness experienced by many children and can significantly impact their daily lives.
Let's explore the common signs to better grasp what your child may be going through.
• Avoidance of Social Situations: Children with social anxiety might consistently shy away from gatherings, parties, or school events where they have to interact with their peers.
• Excessive Worry: They may worry excessively about upcoming social events. A child may ask multiple, repeated questions about the event or demanding about having a parent close by.
• Physical Symptoms: Social anxiety can manifest physically, leading to symptoms like sweating, trembling, blushing, or an upset stomach when facing social situations. This might look like frequent illnesses that impact school attendance.
• Low Self-Esteem: Children with social anxiety often have low self-esteem and may believe they are not liked or accepted by their peers. This might look like avoidance of social relationships or unwillingness to engage with peers in social settings.
• Behavioural Outbursts: Anxiety may "look" differently in younger children than it will in older youth and teens. This might look like crying for no reason, having tantrums, freezing, becoming very clinging, or failing to speak in social situations.
Listening to your child's narrative can help parents pick out patterns that may signify your child is experiencing anxiety. Sometimes, social anxiety will sound like this:
I look funny when I chew, so I don't eat during school lunch.
I am not good at baseball, so I will not try during gym.
I am a terrible singer, so I am not joining chorus.
Anxiety in childhood can impact a child's willingness to try new activities or skills. Children become overly scared of making mistakes or failing. They worry about letting others down or feeling embarrassed in front of their friends. This fear can stop children from trying new things and taking chances, which is essential to reaching their full potential. According to Carol Dweck, this is the concept on which a "growth mindset" is built. This psychologist formulated a theory that has changed the idea of learning and education: a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. When we believe in a fixed mindset, we believe we are born with the ability and intelligence we will have throughout our lives. In a growth mindset, our skills, abilities, and intelligence grow with each new experience. Social anxiety can limit these opportunities, forcing the person to believe their abilities are "fixed." For example, "I can't speak in front of crowds. I will never fulfill my dream of being a teacher."
However, fostering a growth mindset is how parents can support their children in overcoming social anxiety.
Empowering Your Child
As a parent without much experience with approaching anxiety, knowing how to empower and support your child can be intimidating. Helping to foster a growth mindset is one proven means to support your child. Here are some easy tips to help you:
• Approach your child with acceptance. Your child will benefit from hearing you take their feelings seriously. It is easy to "brush off" anxiety as irrational or a fear your child will grow out of. Having these fears dismissed is not helpful and will not support your child in overcoming them.
• Be curious. Asking your child questions about their feelings can often help you understand some of the fears beneath their behaviors. Show empathy for these thoughts and feelings to encourage your child to open up further.
• Be a model. Teach your child about anxiety. Sometimes, our brains get "stuck" in an anxious loop. This mechanism helped humans survive when predators tried to eat our ancestors. But now, this anxiety can become less helpful and can hold us back from what we want to do. Normalizing anxiety can help your child feel less frustrated or embarrassed about it. If you can, share something you feel anxious about and how you overcome it.
• Introduce a growth mindset. Introducing the concept of being able to develop new skills and talents can offer a frame of mind that can help your child overcome their social anxiety. Talk through it with your child. An excellent place to start is to focus on progress rather than perfection. Anxiety often stems from the fear of making a mistake. Helping your child see that they can learn from mistakes can help them challenge the avoidance caused by anxiety symptoms.
• Create mantras. Help your child challenge anxiety by developing the ability to "argue" with the thoughts that feed the symptoms. For example, "Progress is the goal," or "It is okay to make mistakes. That is how I learn." Have your child come up with some, too!
• Allow the time to worry. Give your child permission to worry. Telling them not to have those feelings is not realistic. Instead, teach them how to better MANAGE those thoughts in their everyday life. For example, to write down all their worries at the end of the day or first thing in the morning. Have them set aside a time limit to this "worry time," and then they need to move on with their day.
• Find coping skills. Help your child find good distraction or calming techniques. These might be breathing techniques or journaling. Encourage them to try several. The first few may not be the right fit for them. The goal is to get out of their thoughts and into the present moment.
Accessing Professional Support
If you feel the symptoms are affecting their daily life and well-being, such as failing grades, significant shifts in mood, sleep, or appetite; you may want to seek professional help. Talk with your child’s teachers or school counselor to gain understanding of how well your child is managing at school. Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor may be necessary when your child is at risk for being stuck in a pattern where their symptoms impact their ability to function. Seek a professional who specializes in approaches for youth with anxiety disorders, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This helps normalize for your child that asking for help is okay, promoting their ability to do so into adulthood.
In conclusion, social anxiety can be a challenging experience for both children and parents. However, understanding the symptoms and being able to identify them can help parents support their children better. Empowering children by fostering a growth mindset, accepting their emotions, and being curious about their feelings can help them overcome social anxiety. With proper support and guidance, children can learn to navigate social situations and build their self-esteem, leading to a more fulfilling life. Remember, as a parent, you play a crucial role in your child's well-being and growth. By taking the time to understand and support your child's needs, you can help them thrive and overcome social anxiety.