How Can I Help My Child With Social Anxiety?

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Social anxiety is a common cause of school avoidance and school refusal. Getty / Thomas Tolstoy

In this article, Katherine Spere, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, answers my questions about how parents can help their children with social anxiety.

Q: How can a parent tell if social anxiety is a problem for his/her child?

Dr. Spere: It’s not uncommon for children to feel shy in new situations or around new people. The first day of school, starting at a new camp, or meeting lots of new children at the playground can make many children feel nervous and uncomfortable.

However, for many children, this feeling passes and they warm up and have a good time interacting with others. Social anxiety is a problem when the degree of nervousness felt when interacting with people or meeting new people starts to interfere with a child’s functioning.

For example, if the child avoids talking and interacting with their peers, if they panic at the thought of attending a birthday party, or if they are constantly worried about being judged by others, it is likely not just shyness or nervousness and instead may reflect an anxiety disorder that should be addressed.

Q: What kind of help can a child with social anxiety receive?

Dr. Spere: Children with social anxiety benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy directly addresses anxious thoughts and teaches children how to challenge thoughts so that they can better manage their emotions.

In addition, CBT challenges anxious behavior, by gradually allowing children to face their fears.

CBT can provide long-term benefits by giving children tools they can use whenever they are feeling anxious.

Q: How can social anxiety best be managed at school?

Dr. Spere: Social anxiety is a common cause of school avoidance and school refusal. As such, it is very important to communicate clearly with the school and to put measures in place to make school attendance easier while the child works on managing the anxiety.

Small modifications in the classroom, for example, sitting the child next to his/her best friend, can make the environment seem safer. Accommodations such as permitting the child to do presentations one-on-one with the teacher, or exempting the child from gym class can be short-term measures that help increase attendance when anxiety is high.

It can also be helpful to have a safe place within the school, for example, the principal’s office or guidance counselor’s office, where the child can go if he/she feels overwhelmed.

Q: What strategies can a parent use to help a child with social anxiety?

Dr. Spere: It is important to remember that children with anxiety are not choosing to feel that way. Their avoidance or fear behaviors are not necessarily under their control. Forcing them to do things that make them feel anxious or getting mad or frustrated will likely increase the anxiety and potentially make the situation worse.

Parents can help children by being patient and understanding, while encouraging their children to gradually face situations that make them feel worried, and by keeping their children engaged socially (e.g., extracurricular activities).

Q: Does social anxiety change with age (i.e., get better or worse)?

Dr. Spere: There isn’t necessarily a clear trajectory in terms of whether social anxiety gets better or worse with age. Untreated or unaddressed, it is likely that a socially anxious child will still experience socially anxiety as a teenager or adult. However, the degree to which the anxiety interferes can change over time.

While an anxious child may avoid extracurricular activities, school, or birthday parties, as a teenager, social anxiety can interfere with social relationships more broadly, can affect school attendance and performance, can interfere with having a job, and can prevent functioning independently (e.g., going to stores, restaurants, etc.). Intervention and addressing anxiety as soon as possible is important to help prevent it from interfering with overall functioning and success.

About Katherine Spere, Ph.D.

Dr. Spere is a clinical psychologist in Kitchener, Ontario who works with children, teenagers, and their families. She provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for children experiencing anxiety, depression, behavior issues, or learning difficulties. For further information, you can visit www.drspere.com.     

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