Social Anxiety – When Shyness Becomes a Problem

By ParentTV on 26 Apr 2019
Categories: Mental Health

This post was written by ParentTV psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger

There is nothing wrong with being reserved, not everyone needs to be the life of the party. However, social anxiety can have a negative impact on your child by preventing them from communicating effectively, joining activities, performing academically and making friends. If your child or teen’s shyness is standing in their way there are many strategies and treatments that may help.

How Children & Teens Develop Social Anxiety

Some studies have actually found that adults are more likely to experience shyness than teenagers. After all, teens who are in school are around their peers much more of the time than most adults. However, studies have also indicated that teens have poorer coping skills when they do experience social anxiety and are more likely to exhibit behaviours such as avoidance.

Teens who had shy parents growing up are more likely to experience shyness themselves. While this is due in part to genetics, it also is related to the behaviours their parents have modelled to them such as being overprotective or exhibiting social anxiety themselves. Life experiences can contribute to the development of social anxiety. Teens who have had negative experiences when trying new things may become less outgoing over time.

Watch ParentTV expert Claire’s video on “When Shyness Becomes a Problem” here.

Signs of Social Anxiety & Shyness in Children

Temperament: The temperament of a shy child may include behaviours such as being quiet, keeping to themselves, being hesitant, passive or becoming or overly concerned with the opinions of others. They also may express a fear of being embarrassed.

Watch Maggie Dent’s video on “Parenting Lambs – Our Sensitive Children” here.

Body Language: The body language of a social anxious child may include avoiding eye contact, crossing their arms, keeping their head down, fewer facial expressions and nervous habits such as fidgeting or playing with their hair.

At School: Academically they may perform poorly, not participate in class activities and discussions and avoid interaction with peers. They may fear speaking or presenting in front of the class and be uncomfortable in the spotlight. They may even refuse to go to school at all.

With Peers: They may be uncomfortable in group settings, have fewer friends, be reluctant to initiate conversations or social activities.

The Impact of Social Anxiety in Children

Social anxiety can be detrimental to your child’s academic performance by making them less likely to ask their teachers questions to gain clarity on tasks and assignments. They may also have difficulty doing presentations that involve public speaking and be distracted by their anxiety while in class.

Social anxiety may also result in them not expressing themselves or speaking out when their rights are being abused. This could even lead to them being easier targets for bullies. Over time, they may feel increasingly helpless and lack the social assertiveness to get what they want out of their friendships and peer relationships.

Watch videos on how to help your child with bullying here.

Strategies to Help Your Child With Social Anxiety:

1. Talk to Them About Anxiety: Even though everyone has anxiety to varying degrees, children and teens often do not recognise the feelings they are experiencing as anxiety. Instead they may interpret anxiety symptoms as having something wrong with them. If they have physical symptoms of anxiety, such as an upset stomach, they may even think they are sick.

By talking to your son or daughter about anxiety you can help them understand that they are not alone and many people share the same thoughts and feelings. Developing a heightened awareness of their own anxiety can also help them recognise it and utilise any coping strategies they have learned.

2. Encourage Openness: Ensure that your child understands that you are a safe person to confide in. If you notice them exhibiting signs of anxiety over a social situation ask them how they are feeling. One of the best ways to do this is to confide in them about fears you may have had at their age and ask if they have ever felt the same way. Not only does this encourage dialogue, but it also helps normalise their feelings of anxiety.

Watch Dr Justin Coulson’s video on “How to really listen so your child shares more” here.

3. Help Them Build Confidence: By bolstering your child’s confidence you can help them overcome parts of their social anxiety. Try to get them involved in activities that will help them develop skills and talents. This will also provide them with the opportunity to meet new people. Although this may be difficult at first it will become easier, even something to look forward to, for them over time.

Learn how to build confidence in children here.

4. Pick a Goal:  When getting your child to take a step to become more involved in social activities it is wise to start with small steps so they can gradually become more comfortable and are less overwhelmed. Have your child choose which social activity they would like to try and reward them with positive praise following their participation.

5. Expose Them to Social Situations: Even if your child tends to avoid social situations you should not reinforce their avoidance by becoming overprotective. Provide them with confidence building experiences and take them to fun events where there may be crowds, such as concerts with their favourite musicians. Exposure to new social experiences will help them overcome their anxiety and gain confidence in their own coping abilities.

6. Teach Them to Relax: If your child suffers from anxiety it is important for them to learn to recognise the symptoms and learn how to relax. This is different for each person and may include therapeutic activities such as drawing, painting, exercise or reading a book. Deep breathing and tension releasing exercises are also a great way to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.

7. Maintain Your Expectations: Do not give your child special treatment. Keep your expectations the same. You may need to be more flexible with your parenting at times, but treating them the same as you would any of your other children can help them build confidence and not feel as though they are different.

8. Seek Professional Help: If your child’s anxiety is causing educational and social dysfunction it may be time to seek professional help to reduce the impacts of their social anxiety. Talk to your family doctor, school counselors or a registered psychologist to determine the best course of action for helping your son or daughter achieve the best outcome possible. If your child’s anxiety has escalated to a level where they are at risk of self-harm or suicide it is crucial to seek professional help immediately.

Not all shyness seen in children is diagnosed as Social Anxiety Disorder. For many it may pass as a phase, for others their social anxiety may develop into something more serious. In any case it is important to be aware and supportive as a parent by offering them the tools they need to thrive.

causes of anxiety in children

Being a parent of an anxious child can be challenging. The good news is that while there is no cure for anxiety it is very treatable and there are many strategies that have been proven to help manage and ease anxiety in children.

In this course, Dr Jodie walks through everything you need to know about parenting and helping your anxious child.