How Can Social Anxiety Hinder Our Children?

By Tracy Wright

Around the stage of prepubescence and teenage years, some children can also experience various social and mental health conditions. Social anxiety disorder is one such condition and is described as an intense fear of social situations that may cause a child to be analyzed by others. Children suffering from social anxiety disorder feel intense anxiety when triggered by different situations such as public speaking, fear of embarrassment or the unknown.

The onset of social anxiety disorder usually occurs between 8 and 15 with the median age of 13 years old. The cause is not fully understood, but it is typically caused by either a history of poor social interaction and shyness or a traumatic experience like bullying.

Social anxiety disorder can have many adverse effects besides the mental and physical symptoms. It negatively impacts academic performance, friendships, self-confidence and other areas of life. Avoiding activities mean that children will choose not to engage in outside activities like sports or special interest clubs for fear of embarrassment.

What the experts say:

Unfortunately, increased use of smartphones and technology do little to help children with social anxiety and in some cases may be the main or contributing culprit. A 2016 study found that there is a correlation among smartphone usage with social anxiety and loneliness. With more smartphone use, our children are relying more on faceless communication. Behind screens, children feel more emboldened to not filter their words which could lead to increased rates of cyberbullying.

A major problem associated with this is the psychological syndrome of moral disengagement, said Holly T. Moses, Ph.D., Lecturer in the Department of Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida.

“Moral disengagement is the process by which a person who would normally not take an action because considered immoral disengages that impulse. With cyberbullying, adolescents and teens do not see someone’s reaction to their online comment so that moral compass is temporarily lost,” Moses said.

Cyberbullying can instantly trigger social anxiety. The use of smartphones also disconnects familial relationships and can fracture the parent-child connection. With teenage children averaging nine hours a day on their devices, this equals more time alone and less time to communicate with parents over dinner, in the car or on family trips. This means parents are losing valuable time to positively encourage their children and help ward off mental health situations like social anxiety.

What can you do?

So what can parents do if their children suffer from social anxiety? The first is to identify the condition and be open and honest with your child. Help them understand that the condition is common and normal and that you are on their team to help them through it. Be sensitive to your child’s needs
and wants, and educate them about the effects of anxiety. This may help them understand their triggers and ways to work through them.

PARENTS SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR THE FOLLOWING SYMPTOMS:

  • Crippling anxiety in social situations which can come quickly or manifest itself over time.
  • A child fears negative feedback of behavior by peers or others.
  • Social situations always cause fear which can lead to tantrums, crying or freezing up.
  • Children avoid social situations altogether, and this can last for 6 months or more.
  • Shifting blame to others (peers, teachers, parents) for social failures.
  • Physical symptoms like racing heart, blushing, trembling, nausea, shortness of breath or failure to speak.

Parents can help children work through anxiety with certain coping strategies such as deep breathing. Teach your child to do relaxed breathing which has been clinically shown to calm symptoms of anxiety. (Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four and breathe out for four).

Closing their eyes and practicing guided imagery is another coping mechanism (the child imagines they are in a safe and desired space while breathing deeply). Finally, muscle relaxation can help a child to soothe stiff muscles that tense up with anxiety. Work with your child to help them relax tense muscles.

Work with your child on problem-solving skills such as helping to tackle their fears head on. If a child fears public speaking, avoiding that situation can actually make the problem worse. Help them to practice speech skills in front of a mirror. Set rules when it comes to smartphone time and apply them for the whole family. Build in quality face time with your child and make it count.

Finally, work with your child to reframe negative thoughts contributing to anxiety. Help them to recognize negativity and reframe it in reality. Instead of “I’m no good at sports,” help them to understand that everybody has their strengths and emphasize their particular skills. Teach your child to recognize negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. In addition, coach your child through certain social situations that may arise.

Next steps

If at-home strategies do not help, it may mean you need a visit to the pediatrician or psychologist to assess symptoms. Professionals may be able to tell you whether your child’s condition is worthy of future professional assistance or if the condition can be worked through at home.