“I refuse to eat at school because I don’t want anyone to look at me and think I look gross,” a 14-year-old young woman shared with me during our counselling session.
Social anxiety is the fear of being scrutinized and humiliated in front of others to the point of severe distress or avoidance. It can cause people to worry about being viewed as stupid, boring, gross, awkward, or anxious. Those who struggle often feel sad and lonely because they recognize that others don’t understand their fears.
As children become teenagers, they are more susceptible to social anxiety because of the increased cognitive complexity and self-consciousness adolescence brings. This is a necessary developmental stage that creates an awareness of their own inner thoughts and feelings, as well as the awareness of the self as a social object. It allows for the appraisal of oneself and others at the same time that individuation and a greater reliance on peers occurs.
The ability to compare differences between oneself and others brings with it a greater sense of vulnerability. Where children are able to feel proud of their skills and interests, adolescents tend to focus on their differences. This is why they are often more concerned about rejection and failure than they were as children. In fact, youth who struggle with social anxiety may be so self-conscious and fearful that they are unable to engage in typical daily tasks and interactions.
Children who are shy, withdrawn, or highly sensitive are at greater risk of developing social anxiety as they enter adolescence. It also tends to be common for those who have experienced separation anxiety or struggle with social skills. Social anxiety is the third most common mental health disorder after depression and substance abuse.
It’s common for parents to notice changes in their child’s behaviour, and to wonder whether they are purely introverted or actually suffering from social anxiety. Some signs that may indicate your adolescent is struggling with social anxiety include:
- Great effort to avoid new activities or social and performance situations
- Wanting a parent to be available to them at all times
- Difficulty attending or participating in class
- Avoiding public behaviours such as eating or using restrooms
- Fear of being looked at with harsh negative thoughts about themselves
If your teen’s fear of scrutiny is resulting in avoidance and distress, recruit a team to help support them. This may include a trained therapist and school staff who can help you implement a support plan. The following are some key points to keep in mind when helping your socially anxious teen:
1. Educate Yourself
The key to being an effective support is learning about how anxiety impacts the nervous system and understanding the developmental components of social appraisal. You can help your teen tune in to their body response and learn to see their anxiety as a “trick” – that the body is merely confused. This will help them understand that anxiety is an adaptive stress response that has gone awry and that they are experiencing false alarms in their body.
A basic understanding of adolescent development can help you empathize with the significant vulnerabilities that come with this developmental stage. It is important to increase your compassion rather than get frustrated or stuck in patterns of pushing, judging, and criticizing. Recognize that social anxiety causes your teenager to experience an exaggerated version of typical adolescent development.
As parents, it is key that we stay calm as our own anxiety and frustration will feed our teenager’s anxiety.
2. Model Calm
Mirroring is a natural part of human interconnection, and our bodies absorb the energy of those around us. This is especially true for our family members who are most sensitive to our mood. As parents, it is key that we stay calm as our own anxiety and frustration will feed our teenager’s anxiety. I like to refer to this concept as “owning the mood in the home.” Practice calming the nervous system through breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness exercises. Once this is natural for you, you can support your teen to do the same.
3. Bring Attention to Thoughts
The more time our body spends in anxious states, the more strongly neuropathways develop that prompt the body to jump into the stress response. This concept also applies to our thoughts. The more an adolescent has thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” “They think I’m stupid,” or “Everyone is looking at me,” the stronger and more automatic they become.
Help your teen recognize anxious thought patterns so they can practice finding more adaptive and realistic thoughts to replace them. This will help them gradually develop more healthy ways of thinking. Remind them to practice this technique regularly as new neuropathways don’t develop overnight.
4. Face Fears
Although empathy for our children is key, we shouldn’t enable their avoidance by lowering our expectations and constantly rescuing them. Gradual exposure to feared situations can be effective for helping your teen learn to tolerate small degrees of anxiety. This will also give them opportunities to practice coping strategies that can help them feel less distressed and more successful.
Remind your teen that experiencing a bit of anxiety while being successful is the best way to overcome social anxiety. Notice and celebrate even small steps and work together with your teen’s school to ask for support in planning. A fear ladder is a helpful tool that you can develop together. Along with their support team, help your teen identify goals and plan small steps they can take to reach them. As fears are often school-related, it will be important to collaborate with your teen’s school team to develop a realistic and effective plan.
Regardless of what your teenager’s particular fears are, anxiety robs them of their ability to think rationally and solve problems. For example, if your teenager isn’t confident in their ability to approach a potential employer or answer questions in an interview, their anxiety will only increase once placed in that situation, minimizing the likelihood of success. Work with them to prepare for the interview, problem solve, and practice. Determine what areas they find the most difficult, discuss possible outcomes, and role play difficult social scenarios. Teenagers don’t necessarily know what to expect or what will be expected of them because their brain is still developing. The fear of the unknown can exacerbate their anxiety response.
Parents naturally worry about their children as they enter adolescence, hoping they will develop into strong, independent, and confident adults. Making friends, being successful in school, and developing independent interests can be interrupted when teenagers are impacted by social anxiety. Being an empathic, calm, and engaged parent can greatly benefit your socially anxious teen and assist them to face their fears, one step at a time.
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