Children and Social Anxiety

Social Phobia tends to start during adolescence. According to Montgomery (1995), approximately 40% of social phobias start before the age of 10 and approximately 95% before the age of 20. The early onset of social phobia can have serious consequences for a child’s social and academic development. If left untreated, social anxiety can lead to increased risk of: alcoholism, drug abuse, developing further psychological problems and even suicide. Therefore, it is important not to dismiss a child’s anxiety by saying they’ll grow out of their excessive shyness /self consciousness as many will not without (1) appropriate assistance from other people such as parents, other family members and teachers and (2) treatment by a mental health professional.

How do I know if my child has social anxiety?

There is no one sign that indicates that a child has social anxiety. However some common signs of excessive shyness are:

  • crying, throwing tantrums, clinging & freezing
  • poor eye contact
  • speaking very softly and/or saying very little, even nothing when at school
  • frequent claims of illness so as to avoid going to school
  • refusing to go to school (According to the Montgomery(1995) approximately four out of 10 socially anxious children refuse to attend school because of their anxiety)
  • experiencing severe anxiety about exams
  • appearing very anxious when the centre of attention
  • unwillingness to participate in class activities such as: show & tell, debating, reading aloud, raising their hand to answer & ask questions
  • devoting an excessive amount of time to computer games
  • being constantly alone in the playground, hovering on the edge of groups, not joining in, having no friends or one or two friends
  • spending a lot of time alone in their room (Schneier & Welowitz (1996)

If your child is exhibiting any of these signs. it does not prove they have social anxiety .For example, a child may refuse to go to school because he is being victimized by a teacher.

If you are concerned about any behaviours your child is demonstrating you need to clarify whether these are indicative of social anxiety or something else. It may simply be that they are being victimized by a teacher, however on the other hand their behaviour may reflect the presence of a recognised psychological condition. According to the American Psychiatric Association (1994), other diagnoses such as separation anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, pervasive developmental disorder or schizoid personality disorder may need to be ruled out.

Therefore, if you have concerns about your child it is advised that you seek assistance from a mental health professional who specialises in children such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Furthermore, seek feedback from other people who have contact with your child as to his/her behaviour in creche, school, extra curricular activities and so forth. Where possible try to discuss the issue with your child; but how successful this communication will be will be dependent upon the age of the child, their verbal ability and obviously their willingness to discuss the issue.
(Schneier & Welkowitz,1996).

What Can Teachers Do To Help The Socially Anxious Child?

  • Teachers need to gently encourage socially anxious children to confront their feared situations. It can be tempting to let children avoid feared situations altogether as adults but they won’t overcome their anxiety unless they tackle the feared social scenarios. (Malouff, 2002)
  • All teachers need to be mindful of not doing anything to embarrass or humiliate a child and to insist on a safe, humiliation free environment in the classroom. One teacher told me that when her high school class gave presentations she knew some of her students dreaded public speaking so she informed the class as a whole that if anyone sniggered or commented adversely on another students performance marks would be deducted from their score. Apparently this proved an effective strategy
  • Primary Teachers can read story books to the class about issues such as shyness, self esteem and bullying. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Primary teachers might make a shy child their special helper in the classroom. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Teachers can make an effort to foster friendships between a shy child and a more outgoing child, taking care to chose a child who will be a willing partner for the socially anxious one. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Both primary and secondary teachers may like to implement the FRIENDS group program in their school or classroom. This program aims to prevent anxiety and depression in children and young people. Two separate programs have been developed for children (ages 7-11) and adolescents (12-16 years) (Barrett, Lowry -Webster, & Holmes 1999)
  • Teachers can be conscious of rewarding any small step a socially anxious child makes to be more outgoing or participatory in class, and then gradually requiring the child to do more to earn the reward. (Malouff, 2002)
  • All teachers can actively promote the development of their students’ self esteem by giving praise where praise is due. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Schools need to have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and ENFORCE it as obviously bullying can be very detrimental to a child’s self esteem. Schools and teachers can minimise bullying by promoting the acceptance of differences in e.g.culture, race, body shape & personality in the classroom.
  • Teachers can encourage socially anxious to participate more in class discussion by promoting a “Have A Go’ approach to learning, eg if the child answers incorrectly look happy and say “Thanks for playing’.
  • Teachers can pair children off for activities so the shy child is not repeatedly left partnerless or organise teams for sports so the socially anxious child is not repeatedly picked last.
    (Malouff, 2002)

What parents can do to help the socially anxious child and/or adolescent?

  • Parents of young children can read books about shyness, bullying and self esteem to their children (Malouff, 2002)
  • All parents can make a conscious effort to foster their child’s self esteem by paying them compliments and providing verbal and physical demonstrations of affection. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Parents can share with their child some of the times they have felt anxious in social situations so the child knows it’s alright to discuss feelings of anxiety and that they are being supported. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Parents need to encourage their child to confront feared situations one small, do-able step at a time. (Malouff, 2002)
  • Parents can suggest their school adopt the FRIENDS program if their school has not already done so.
  • Parents can seek help for the child from their :e.g. general practitioner, local public child and adolescent mental health service, or a child psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Parents can involve the child’s teacher/s in any proposed treatment plan.
    (Malouff, 2002)

American Psychiatric Association.(1994). Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSMIV. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press
Barrett, P., Lowry-Webster,H., & Holmes, J.(1999). The FRIENDS Program. Queensland, Australian Academic Press
Schneier, F.& Welkowitz, L.(1996) The Hidden Face of Shyness. New York, New York. Avon Books
Malouff,J. (2002) Helping Young Children Overcome Shyness
Montgomery, S.A. (1995). Pocket Reference to Social Phobia London. Science Press Ltd.


This article published on Nov 10, 2012. View related Articles

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