Social anxiety disorder is an "intense, persistent fear of being scrutinized and negatively evaluated by others in social or performance situations." (Anxiety Disorders Association of America)
It is often diagnosed in adolescence and teens with the disorder are consistently worried about doing something "stupid" or embarrassing in public. Besides impacting school performance, social anxiety disorder frequently gets in the way of making friends and maintaining friendships, which are so important during the teen years.
Why Friendship Matters
Friends, and friendship, are an essential part of growing up. As young children, we develop friendship based on our neighborhood, our classmates and our activities. As teens, friends are chosen based on an emotional connection. As teens branch out and seek independence from their parents, it is their friends they rely on for emotional support.
Friendship during the teen years helps to teach relationship skills. Where early friendships may have revolved around playing together, older friendships are more based on an emotional need and the give and take teen learn from these friendships will continue into adult relationships. It is during these years and these friendships, teens learn how to relate to the opposite sex and how to enjoy healthy relationships.
Friends also show "social status" to one another. The friends you choose play a vital part in how you are defined by others, especially during the high school years. Cliques are commonplace and most teens will gravitate toward a certain group of people they feel comfortable with. There is security in belonging to a group of friends.
Social Anxiety Disorder in Teens
For those with social anxiety disorder, life can be lonely. Teens with SAD may have only a few friends or none at all. They may feel isolated and alone.
Teens with social anxiety disorder may have difficulty:
- Eating in front of other people
- Using a public bathroom
- Meeting new people
- Talking to classmates
- Inviting friends to activities or to their home
- Attending social events
- Expressing their opinion
- Working with others
- Speaking in front of other people
Because of these difficulties, teens may miss out on opportunities to develop not only friendships but the skills they will need later to create healthy relationships.
How Parents Can Help
Treatment is available for SAD. Parents concerned about their teen should talk with their doctor and request a referral to a specialist to find out more about therapy, self-help and medication. A mental health professional can complete an evaluation and discuss the different options as well as help in deciding what type of treatment would be best for their teen.
In addition, there are ways parents can support their teen at home:
Teach your child about social anxiety disorder
It is important for both you and your teen to understand what anxiety is and what social anxiety disorder is. It may help your teen to know that he or she is not the only person feeling this way and there are treatments and tools that can help to minimize and manage the symptoms of anxiety. Learning about anxiety is the first step toward managing symptoms.
Teach relaxation techniques
Your teen needs to know methods and strategies for coping with overwhelming feelings of anxiety when it occurs. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and meditation are methods that have been found to be helpful.
Encourage and support a healthy lifestyle
Daily exercise has been found to improve anxiety symptoms. Help your teen find an outlet to get exercise every day. It could be joining a gym, the YMCA or riding a bike each day. Exercise has been found to decrease anxiety symptoms both immediately, such as during times of high stress, and overall. In addition to exercising, getting a good night's sleep and eating correctly can help to improve symptoms of anxiety.
Rethinking anxious thoughts
Teens tend to think of every action and interaction as a reflection of how someone looks at them. Talk about how they can reframe their thinking process to help relieve anxiety. For example, many teens with SAD are fearful of answering questions in class because they are afraid they will say the wrong answer or say something stupid. Ask your teen what happens when someone answers a question incorrectly. The answer is probably nothing, class moves on. Share a story of when you have said something wrong.
Believing something bad will happen if they make a mistake has probably become a habit for your teen. Explain it will take work to reframe thinking and remember that bad things don't happen when you answer a question incorrectly.
Continue to gently and supportively remind your teen to look at things differently.
As adults, we understand that facing our fears usually helps to diminish them. But teens may not have the experience to accept this.
Talk to your teen about slowly facing his or her fears. Instead of joining a group of kids, maybe your teen can start by talking to one other person, or even start by smiling and saying hello. Once your teen feels comfortable saying hello, he or she may be more apt to start a conversation.
Facing fears is a large part of anxiety treatment.
Find social outlets
Our teen may feel more comfortable in small groups. Look for groups, classes or activities in your area your teen may be interested in. This could be an art class, scouts, or a sports team. Make sure your teen has some interest in the activity. He or she may be more apt to talk with other participants and therefore gain confidence.
Expose your teen to many different social outlets.
Role play social skills
Sometimes, teens need extra help in understanding unspoken social cues or in speaking clearly. Make a game of role playing to help your teen learn what to say, how to say it and how to read what other people are thinking based on nonverbal cues. The more you practice, the better your teen will get.
Social anxiety disorder can be debilitating and leave someone feeling depressed, lonely and helpless. Working with your teen can help to let him or her know they are not alone.
"ADAA on Social Anxiety"
"Home Management Strategies for Social Anxiety Disorder", Anxiety BC
"Social Phobia" (2007), National Institute of Mental Health