Do You Know Whether Your Child Is Simply Shy Or Something More Serious?

Shyness is a problem that is well known to many of us. It is that all too familiar feeling of tension, anxiety or discomfort that one may experience when faced with the prospect of having to interact with another person or people. Or it could be that anxiety felt when having to do something in front of other people.

Shyness can be troubling and quite uncomfortable. Up to 80% of people report that they were shy at one time in their lives. Forty percent describe themselves as shy now. If you consider yourself shy, this doesn’t automatically mean that you have a problem that requires professional help. Most people feel some discomfort when facing social events like parties and such. Preparing to take on a social risk can be uncomfortable in situations such as asking someone out on a date for the first time, as well.

girl jeans kid loneliness

The typical shy person will get through these situations quite well. There may be great temptation to avoid them, but that shy person understands that the benefits outweigh the risks and having gone through these times will bring greater satisfaction in their lives.

However, these feelings of discomfort can sometimes be severe. If they are sufficiently intense; if the person avoids doing things that are important to him or her because of these feelings; or if the person’s ability to function at home, at school, at work, or in his or her social circle is curtailed by these feelings, the label of shyness is no longer appropriate. Then mental health professionals call it social anxiety disorder (it is also known as social phobia). Approximately 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder is the fear of being observed and evaluated by others. It is a fear of being judged. These persons fear that they will embarrass themselves or be humiliated in social situations. They fear people will wonder what is wrong with them. At the base of these fears is that people will reject them or determine them incompetent in some way. These kinds of fears may interfere with everyday functioning and the choices one makes in life.

Some may become extremely anxious in a number of situations or avoid them altogether. Situations may include:

  • public speaking
  • working, writing or playing while others are watching
  • initiating conversations with strangers
  • dating
  • parties
  • interacting with authority figures
  • or asserting oneself with others.

That list can be much longer since much of what we do involves others. The effects can be varied and many can be serious. Individuals with social anxiety disorder may find themselves socially isolated and lonely because it is too frightening to approach others. These persons are often very bright, talented, creative and sensitive people. They may find themselves in unfulfilling jobs because the exciting ones are frightening to them. These persons may be most vulnerable to depression. Relief from their anxiety may also be sought by what’s called ‘self-medicating’. That process involves taking artificial substances like alcohol and prescription medications to relieve anxiety symptoms, but they also may lead to additional, more serious problems on top of this disorder.

close up of teenage girl

It is very important to pay close attention to the behaviors and attitudes, as well as daily habits of persons whom you suspect are more than just shy. For children, social anxiety disorder (social phobia) isn’t simply a fear of making or interacting with friends. It’s actually characterized by an intense fear of social situations in which the child might be judged or scrutinized by others.

Children with social anxiety disorder experience intense feelings of anxiety about a number of different triggers including speaking in front of others, reading out loud, fear about being evaluated by others, fear of offending others, fear of embarrassment, and fear conversing with unfamiliar individuals. Children with social anxiety disorder worry in a lot of social situations (school, teams, play dates, enrichment classes, and even family reunions.)

Social anxiety disorder can cause significant distress for children and has a negative effect on academic performance, social relationships, self-confidence, and other areas of functioning. Children with social anxiety disorder are likely to avoid engaging in things like sports or other group activities with their peers for fear of negative scrutiny or embarrassment.

The median age at onset of social anxiety disorder is 13 years, and 75% have an age at onset between 8 and 15 years. The disorder can emerge out of a childhood history of social inhibition or shyness but can also be triggered by a traumatic experience, including bullying.

  • The social situations always trigger fear or anxiety (in children this can manifest as tantrums, clinging, crying, freezing up, or failure to speak)
  • Social situations are avoided or endured with intense feelings of fear and anxiety
  • The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat
  • The fear, anxiety, and avoidance lasts for 6 months or more
  • Causes clinically significant distress in social, occupational (school), or other areas of functioning
  • Dread of social events that can occur weeks in advance
  • Excessive clinging to familiar people
  • Tantrums when faced with anxiety provoking social situations
  • Blaming others for perceived social failures
  • Physical symptoms: Blushing, racing heart, shaky voice, trembling, nausea, difficulty speakingwoman wearing white sleeveless top

Adults can help their children cope with social anxiety disorder. The first step is to name it. Children with social anxiety disorder know that they feel fearful and anxious in social situations, but they don’t always know why. Helping them connect the dots between emotional responses, physical symptoms, and triggers is an important first step toward learning to cope. Educating your child about the ways in which anxiety impacts thinking and behavior is a powerful lesson in learning to work through negative emotions.

Teach relaxation strategies

Kids need to learn a variety of tools to use when feeling anxious and overwhelmed. It’s nearly impossible to use adaptive coping strategies when you’re dealing with intense physical symptoms of anxiety, so the first step is with work on learning to calm the anxious response.

  • Deep breathing is the best way to calm rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and feeling dizzy. Teach your child to visualize blowing up a balloon while engaging the diaphragm in deep breathing. Count your child out to help slow the breathing (4 in, 4 hold, 4 out).
  • Guided imagery: Your child can take a relaxing adventure in her mind while engaging in deep breathing. Tell a quick story in a low and even voice to help your child find her center.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Anxious kids tend to tense their muscles when they’re under stress. Teach your child to relax her muscles and release tension beginning with her hands and arms. Make a fist and hold it tight for five seconds, then slowly release. Move on to the arms, neck and shoulders, and feet and legs.

Teach cognitive re-framing

Kids with social anxiety disorder are often overwhelmed by negative beliefs that reinforce their anxious thoughts. Their beliefs tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Assuming the worst case scenario
  • Believing that others see them through a negative lens
  • Overreacting
  • Personalizing

Teach your child to recognize negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. If your child tends to say things like, “My teacher thinks I’m stupid because I’m bad at reading,” help him recognize the negative thought, ground it in reality (a teacher’s job is to help kids learn not judge them on what they already know), and replace it with a positive thought (“I’m having a hard time reading but my teacher will help me get better.”)

Teach problem-solving skills

Children with social anxiety disorders tend to become masters of avoidance. They do what they can to avoid engaging in situations that cause the most anxiety. While this might seem like the path of least resistance, it can actually make the social anxiety worse over time.

Teach your child to work through feelings of fear and anxiety by developing problem-solving skills. If a child fears public speaking, for example, she can learn to practice several times at home in front of a mirror, have someone videotape her and watch it back, find the friendly face in the room and make eye contact, and use deep breathing to calm anxious feelings.

Help your child identify her triggers and brainstorm potential problem-solving strategies to work through those triggers.

 Work on friendship skills

While you can’t make friends for your child, you can help your child practice friendship skills. Practice these skills using role play and modeling to help your child feel at ease with peers:

  • Greetings
  • Sliding in and out of groups
  • Conversation starters
  • Listening and responding
  • Asking follow up questions/making follow up statements

Seek professional help

If social anxiety disorder negatively affects your child’s ability to attend school, socialize with peers in or out of school, or affects other areas of functioning, it’s time to seek an evaluation from a licensed mental health professional. The good news is that social anxiety disorder is very treatable and kids can learn to cope with their symptoms and implement strategies that work across a wide variety of settings.


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