Here’s Why Social Anxiety Disorder Is More Precarious Than You Think
Takeaway: Children with social anxiety disorder are phobic about social situations. They’re overwhelmed by fears and anxieties that people are judging them. Regular shyness goes away with time, but social anxiety disorder keeps getting worse. And it causes children to withdraw from life completely. However, they can learn to reconnect with life and find happiness again with the right care plan and coping strategies.
Children are often shy and embarrassed in social situations, which is is a perfectly normal part of growing up.
As children start going to school and making friends, they’re immersed in a new social world. And they have to learn how to fit in. So, they continually ask themselves questions like ‘Am I being too mean, here?’ or ‘Am I making too much of a fuss?’ These questions help them match their behaviour to the long list of (unwritten) social rules they’re slowly learning about. But the questions also remind them that people are often judging what they do. And this reminder can be anxiety-provoking. But while most children worry about embarrassing themselves or being evaluated too harshly, they aren’t paralysed by these worries. And they can work through them quite easily.
Social anxiety disorder is a much more intense experience, though. Here, children’s worries about being judged start to take over their lives.
Social anxiety disorder is more than just a bit of anxiety. It’s a full-fledged phobia where a child is terrified of being judged harshly in every social interaction. And this terror isn’t reserved only for challenges like giving a speech or answering a question in class — i.e., situations where she has to ‘perform.’ Rather, she’ll be afraid of everyday events, even something as simple as having a meal with friends in a crowded cafeteria. This crippling anxiety doesn’t get better with time, though. Instead, it begins to seep into every part of her life.
The way this anxiety spreads is part of what makes it so frightening.
Social anxiety inevitably takes over a child’s life. For example, if she walks into a restaurant and two people look up at her, she might assume they’re going to start discussing (and making fun of) her new haircut. If she has a doubt in class, she won’t ask it in case everyone assumes she’s stupid. And if she gets into an argument, she’ll likely not stick up for herself, thinking her friends will laugh at her feelings. Children with social anxiety disorder describe their minds going blank in these sorts of situations, and they often freeze or blush with embarrassment.
Children experience all this anxiety in three overpowering ways.
Psychologists have discovered that children are affected physically, emotionally and psychologically by their social anxiety.
- They feel the anxiety physically, just as they would if they spotted an angry dog charging at them. That is, their ‘flight or fight’ response is triggered, spiking their heart rate, making them sweat, tensing their muscles, etc.
- They change their behaviour because of these uncomfortable physical reactions. That means they might start avoiding potentially scary situations, become irritable and angry, start crying or being clingy, etc. Research also shows that social anxiety disorder is closely connected to selective mutism, where children are unable to speak in certain (often, social) situations.
- They start seeing the world differently because they’re anxious so often. It feels like horrifying dangers lurk everywhere.
So what causes this exaggerated anxiety? Well, it’s a mix of a child’s temperament and life experiences.
Part of social anxiety is a result of a child’s temperament. For example, some children are naturally more shy and sensitive to stimuli/change, even as babies. (Interestingly, children with social anxiety often have parents and siblings who have the same issue.) But life experiences also play a significant role. So, if a child is bullied, laughed at regularly (for example, if she has a stutter), or goes through abuse/trauma, she’s more likely to fear attention of any sort.
The trouble with social anxiety is that it’s easy to mask. And by the time parents suspect anything, their child has withdrawn from life almost completely.
Socially anxious children are so good at avoiding their triggers that you’ll probably never see them uneasy or afraid. Also, since they’re fine at home and stay out of the spotlight at school, parents never realise something is wrong. At the most, they might think that their child is just a bit shy. But shyness fades, while social anxiety only gets worse. And by the time anyone realises what’s happening, most children have withdrawn from all social activities and friendships.
This withdrawal from life is lethal because it ruins a child’s mental health.
Children with social anxiety temporarily feel better when they hide from scary social situations. But avoiding anxiety only makes it come back stronger next time. And since they’re skipping school, saying ‘no’ to parties or dates, and turning down friendships, they begin to feel increasingly lonely. Plus, all this avoidance ruins their academic life because teachers assume they’re not interested in learning. These issues add up over time and can lead to mental health problems like poor self-esteem, depression, and substance abuse.
As parents, our most important task is to recognise the signs of social anxiety disorder as early as possible.
Children are usually diagnosed with social anxiety disorder around the age of 13. But the signs can start showing up as early as 3 or 4 years old. For example, you might notice that your child doesn’t speak much in front of anyone who isn’t family. Or even if she speaks, she might avoid eye contact, speak very softly, blush, tremble, etc. Try to pay special attention to the problems she talks to you about, too. For example, does she seem to worry a lot about what other people might think? Or that they’re judging her as being stupid or slow? You could also note any extreme behaviour. For example, does she seem to snap or throw a tantrum when you push her to meet new people? Or does she regularly get stomachaches before birthday parties or school trips?
Social anxiety disorder doesn’t go away on its own. But a specialist can help teach your child the coping skills she needs.
There isn’t just one habit or trait that proves your child has social anxiety disorder. Rather, it’s a pattern of behaviour that only a specialist will be able to spot. That’s why we suggest you consult a trained psychologist if you suspect your child needs help. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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