We hear the phrase all the time, “Oh, my child is just shy!” Shyness in young kids is common. They are learning to make friends and socialize with people besides their immediate family. It may take some time to get used to. However, it is possible that the feelings go farther than just “being shy.” In fact, children can develop social anxiety disorder, which is an extreme worry about being rejected or judged by others. But how do we tell the difference?
Social Anxiety vs. Shyness
When kids are labeled as “shy” or “introverted,” it’s more due to a personality trait. They may present as weary, passive, hesitant, and avoiding eye contact. Children who are shy may take some time to warm up, but once they are comfortable in social settings, their shyness dissipates.
Social anxiety presents differently. There is a mix of physical and emotional symptoms that cause extreme distress on the child. They may be self-conscious about how they act in social situations and fearful of how they may be perceived by their peers. Children can be so afraid of doing or saying something embarrassing that it’s possible they avoid social interactions altogether.
Signs and Symptoms
While most children try to hide their anxiety, symptoms can look like:
- Sweating, shaking, shortness of breath
- Overthinking tendencies, such as “What if people don’t like me?”
- Crying and throwing tantrums
- Anger, frustration, and aggressive behaviors
- Defiance or avoidance
Every child is different, so social anxiety may not look the same in everyone. Some kids may be anxious in situations involving crowds of people, while others can feel nervous ordering food at a restaurant or asking for help. Below are some examples of social anxiety-provoking situations:
- Walking up to a group of friends whispering and laughing. Even after they assure you that they were not laughing at you, you still worry that they were.
- Wanting to try out for your favorite sports team, but deciding not to due to being afraid that people will watch you play.
- Refusing to answer or ask a question in class because you may sound “stupid.”
- Dreading public speaking or reading aloud in fear of messing up and being embarrassed.
While there is no sure way to tell how social anxiety develops, it is possible that some factors may influence the disorder.
- Family history plays a role in the diagnosis. Children are more likely to develop anxiety if it runs in their biological family.
- Negative experiences such as bullying, ridicule, trauma, neglect, and abuse can contribute to symptoms of social anxiety.
- Moving or relocating forces the child to form new friendships and talk to new people, and may cause social distress.
If left untreated, social anxiety present in children may have serious complications in adulthood. Anxieties can interfere with relationships, work, or just enjoyment of life in general. Adults may develop a low-self esteem, poor social skills, isolation, hypersensitivity, and even suicide. To avoid these negative consequences, it is important to treat social anxiety in childhood.
As a parent or caregiver, it is imperative to not force your child into social situations that make them uncomfortable. Social anxiety is not something they will just grow out of. It takes time, patience, and encouragement from loved ones. Depending on the severity, medication may be necessary to manage symptoms. The best treatment option would be to seek help from a mental health professional. Counseling and Play Therapy are both great options to try before seeking medication.
Therapists can teach and encourage appropriate social skills with your child in a safe and welcoming space. If you child is afraid to separate from you, attend the first few sessions with your child to demonstrate the skills, help build a relationship with the professional, and support them with their treatment process. Reach out and schedule your first family session today!