Social anxiety in children
When children experience social anxiety, they’re afraid of situations where they might have to interact with other people, or be the focus of attention. Often they’re worried that people will think badly of them or that they’ll do something embarrassing.
Identifying social anxiety in children
Social anxiety typically affects older children and adolescents. It can also be diagnosed in children as young as four. Its physical characteristics include nausea, stomach aches, blushing and trembling. Also, children with social anxiety typically:
- are shy or withdrawn
- have difficulty meeting other children or joining in groups
- have a limited number of friends
- avoid social situations where they might be the focus of attention or stand out from others – for example, talking on the telephone and asking or answering questions in class.
It’s easy not to notice social anxiety. This is because children who have social anxiety are often quiet and obedient in preschool or school. They might not talk about their fears or worries.
Shyness or social anxiety?
Shyness in itself is not a problem. Many shy children develop satisfying, long-term friendships with others and have happy and fulfilled lives. Shyness is an issue only when it interferes with children’s enjoyment in life.
But maybe shyness and social anxiety are stopping your child from joining in everyday activities (such as classroom discussions) and enjoyable events (such as parties) or from making lasting friendships. If so, it’s worth doing something about the issue.
Helping children with social anxiety
If your child is suffering from social anxiety, she’ll probably look to you for help and support. There are lots of things you can do.
Read about the stepladder approach
, a gentle behaviour technique used to help children who suffer from social anxiety.
- Prepare your child for situations that make him feel worried or fearful. Act out the situation at home and practise things he can do to make it easier.
- Don’t force your child to talk or do things in front of other people. When you’re with other people, avoid saying things like, ‘Come on. Say hello to Jane. Don’t be shy’.
- If your child manages to do something that normally makes her anxious – for example, talking on the phone – acknowledge her achievement with praise and encouragement. Tell her that you’re proud she’s trying her best. Describe her efforts in detail. If other people are around, praise her quietly and make a big deal when you’re alone.
- If your child has an anxious reaction to a situation, don’t worry. Try the situation again another time with more preparation. Don’t punish or scold your child for ‘failing’.
- It can be useful to tell your child’s preschool, kindergarten or school about his anxiety. Also let them know what you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people in your child’s environment can give him consistent support.
- Gently encourage your child to join in social situations and start new activities. Avoiding social situations can make the problem worse.
- No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising your child or being negative about her difficulty in social situations.
- Tell your child about some of the times you’ve felt anxious in social situations. This will help him understand that it’s OK to discuss anxious feelings. He’ll also feel that you understand and support him.
- Read books or make up stories with your child about shyness, bullying and self-esteem. For example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little duck who didn’t like swimming with the other little ducks. He was afraid they’d laugh at him’. This might help your child feel that she’s not alone in being afraid of or worried about social situations.
- Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by complimenting him and giving him lots of positive attention.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’. If other people comment on your child’s behaviour in social situations, you could say something like, ‘Actually, she’s quite outgoing around people she knows well’.
Professional help for social anxiety
You know your child best. If you’re worried about his anxiety and feel that it’s impacting on his enjoyment in life, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:
- your child’s school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician (who might refer you to a child psychologist)
- your local children’s health or community health centre
- a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states).
Around 1-9% of children and adolescents will develop social phobia. This is when a child’s social anxiety has persisted for more than six months and has a significant impact on the child’s life.
Children with social phobia might avoid many situations that require interaction with other people. These situations include talking on the phone, joining teams or clubs, and answering questions in class. If you feel your child might have a social phobia, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help.