Social Anxiety and Your Teen

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Social anxiety is common scourge of the teen years. Some adolescents experience social anxiety as very young children and continue to experience it throughout their lifetimes. Other young people have an initial experience of social anxiety as they navigate their teen years. Some individuals “grow out” of social anxiety, meaning they learn ways to confidently conduct themselves in social settings. However, if your teen continues to experience social anxiety for more than a few months, it could have serious implications on your child’s future.

Social Anxiety: What It Is and What It Is Not

Social phobia is a clinical mental health diagnosis that is synonymous with social anxiety; however, it may be helpful to consider social maladaptation on a continuum from shyness to anxiety to phobia. The key to distinguishing where your teen might fall on this continuum is to consider how significantly the anxiety affects your child. While some individuals with social phobia may experience the physical symptoms of panic attack (e.g., racing heart, shortness of breath, perspiration, bowel problems) when in a dreaded social situation, the most harm often comes from the individual’s attempt to manage anxiety by avoiding the situation all together. Avoidance strategies can significantly impact a teen’s life choices, as he or she may cut school, change jobs, or avoid dating just to reduce the overwhelming feelings of nervousness, worry, and fear that accompany social situations.

What to Look For

To judge where your teen is on the continuum, look for his or her avoidance behaviors. Especially look to what are called evaluative or performance situations. This can include public speaking, job interviews and test taking, although eating, drinking or writing in public are also considered performance situations. In any situation, there will be an unbearable fear of being negatively judged and embarrassed. Your teen may feel like others will see him or her as crazy, stupid, or otherwise socially inept. There is a great fear that much attention is on the individual and of coming up short.

Is It Manageable?

Some individuals meet the full medical criteria for social phobia, even though they manage to successfully get through the situation that causes them distress. Other individuals will simply avoid the situations at great personal cost. You may have to personally observe your teen to get an outward indication of his or her anxiety level, but even direct observation will not relay your teen’s inner state. That is why looking for avoidance behavior will give you the best indication of the impact social anxiety is wreaking on your teen’s life. If avoidance behaviors cause your child to miss out on the important things in life, and if avoidance has been on going for six months or more, consultation with a qualified professional is in order.

Who Can Help?

Your child’s school counselor may be your first resource. If your school system employs mental health counselors, this individual may offer a social skills training and opportunities to role play these important skills. The school counselor may also have community referral sources. Your primary medical health provider may too have referral sources. In some cases, a medical provider may suggest an antidepressant medication, but non-pharmaceutical interventions will teach your teen to manage anxiety with his or her own resources.

Although there is some indication of genetic predispositions to social anxiety, effective treatment approaches are readily available. Unfortunately, the embarrassment your teen feels about having social anxiety may be your biggest hurdle to getting him or her into treatment. Convey confidence that social anxiety is a treatable condition, and that early treatment yields the best possible outcomes.

Therapy Techniques

Therapy may include psycho-education on social anxiety, social skills training, and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visualization. Cognitive therapy probes and challenges an individual’s thoughts and perception of themselves. For example, individuals with social phobias may mistakenly believe that everyone is looking at them, when in our self-adsorbed culture, most people are really only focused on themselves. In this way, cognitive therapy seeks to correct distorted thoughts that are not helpful to the individual.

Social anxiety can have a profound effect on an individual’s life choices. Assess the extent that social phobia is impacting your teen, and don’t delay in seeking treatment.

Family Can Help or Hinder

If your teen has been shy (cautious, nervous, fearful and introverted) since childhood, those descriptors may have become part of your teen’s identity. It may be how everyone sees your teen, but it’s a limiting identity. Introduce new, positive adjectives that empower your teen and help create self-confidence. Instead of shy, perhaps your teen is discerning and discriminating.

If your family enables or allows your teen to easily avoid social situations, you may need to rethink if this strategy is truly helpful or if it simply supports unhealthy behavior. You may need to change family roles and routines to stop enabling avoidance behavior. Encouraging activities, such as group sports or classes, that get your teen socializing might be in order. This will challenge your teen's comfort zone in a gentle way, and gradually he or she might get a little more comfortable socializing.

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