My child gets very anxious in social situations, and starts to withdraw from and avoid people. I’m concerned this will get worse and will affect her life long-term. How do I help her through this?
Dr. Melissa Gressner, licensed clinical psychologist
It is not uncommon for most children or teens to feel fearful, shy, and nervous at times. Whether speaking in class, trying out for a gymnastics team, or starting a new school—all of these experiences can bring about butterflies in the tummy or sweaty palms. However, for some kids/teens, this can go to the next level and develop into social anxiety, which is defined as extreme feelings of shyness and self-consciousness that evoke powerful fear, making it difficult to participate in everyday social situations.
Typically, the age this develops for children is 10 to 13 years old. They may withdraw from and avoid social situations that they previously enjoyed and take comfort in only the familiar.
I recommend that parents take some time to assess whether this anxiety is new and interfering with their daily lives, or is it more developmentally-appropriate fears and nervousness that all children may face occasionally. Then, if you believe your child is suffering from social anxiety, follow these five steps:
- Initiate a conversation with them about it. Social support from family and friends is crucial in helping to improve social anxiety.
- Avoid criticism and demands that they change. This often makes children feel bad and can increase their anxiety. It’s important to understand that this is not something they are choosing to do, and often can’t simply change on their own.
- Work collaboratively with them to create small goals that gently push them. Support them when they get discouraged along the way. Both are key to improving your child’s confidence in social situations by showing them that they are able to manage situations they didn’t think they could.
- Remind them that with each small step they take they are becoming socially stronger, which sets them up to make bigger leaps the next time.
- Consider individual therapy or group therapy with a licensed mental health provider if your child continues to struggle. A professional can work with them on creating a plan to help decrease their social fears and increase coping skills and confidence.