Social Anxiety Disorder is the most common anxiety disorder, affecting up to 13% of people in the U.S. at some time. Because children’s development focuses on their peers, they often are affected by this anxiety in profound ways. Children frequently have fears of being judged by their peers, not fitting in, and just plain looking stupid in front of everyone. Consequently, children with social anxiety often avoid doing things that may feel anxiety provoking and yet have the potential to help them grow.
I am on my way to drop my 14 yo daughter off at a ballet dance intensive for 3 weeks. She has never been away from us for more than a few days at a time, much less 6 hours away. I am in awe of her willingness and downright eagerness to participate in something that will challenge her physically, emotionally, and socially. She has come a long way from that shy, socially anxious child who would shut down when we had more than a couple of people over for dinner.
As a clinician who works with socially anxious children, I am well aware that you cannot just force a child into social situations unless you want some serious push back from the bully, anxiety. With this in mind, I have learned to take a three tiered approach.
First I educate the child and their family about the anxious brain and why it is so difficult to go against what their brain is trying do to which is to protect them from potential danger or embarrassment. I teach them that there is a glitch in their brain and it sends them danger signals when things are not dangerous, just uncomfortable. It will be important for them to learn how to tolerate these feelings and the uncertainty about how people judge them in order to quiet this part of their brain.
Second, I teach them social skills that they may be behind in. Because of social anxiety, children do not participate in typical social events like sleepovers, birthday parties, sports, or dance classes. This prevents them from picking up on social skills like initiating and maintaining conversations, texting, using the phone, and picking up on social cues. Role playing is a key component to this part of our work together.
Finally, the child and I become a team. We start developing a hierarchy of socially challenging situations for them and begin to expose them to these in a way that is fun, crazy and often draws attention, thus potential judgment by others. The goal is for them to be able to tolerate this discomfort and even welcome it. Once they are able to tolerate the anxiety brought on by their fears, we work on participating in activities with their friends and practicing their new found social skills.
There is no better reward than watching a child grow from a small, isolated, fearful person to a person who is courageous, takes risks, and lives his/her life fully using their gifts and talents!
To learn more about social anxiety go to https://akfsa.org/what-is-social-anxiety/. We will also be offering a new webinar this fall on treating social anxiety. Stay tuned!