If you were to think back to your own teenage years, you might recall how hard it was at times. You were likely socially awkward, like most teens, and to make matters worse some classmates were downright mean. Perhaps you were deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing. Or maybe you were fearful of humiliating yourself. Fortunately, those social pressures and your social fears went away as you got older, became more mature, and learned that the world isn’t going to fall apart because of one small slip of the tongue.
But now that you’re a parent, how can you make it easier for your teen?
Well, there are a variety of things that both you and your teen can do to ease the pain of social awkwardness as well as avoid certain social pressures. You may want to consider providing support for your teen (including professional support) if your teen experiences any of the following:
- high degree of anxiety or shyness when with peers or friends in a group setting (at lunch, on break, at a party)
- intense worry about an upcoming dance or other social event in which there are certain social expectations
- feeling of being judged by others
- strong fear that you might say or do the “wrong” thing
Along with these above experiences, a teen might have physical reactions that indicate anxiety or nervousness caused by social pressures including:
- increased heart rate
- loss of ability to think clearly
- difficulty breathing
- chest pains
- feeling lightheaded
- hot or cold flashes
- feelings of overwhelm or panic
- feeling an intense need to escape
- feeling detached from yourself
Social Anxiety Disorder
When social pressures becomes a burden, that’s when a teen needs your help. In fact, if the above symptoms are those that your teen has experienced for more than six months, they may have Social Anxiety Disorder. Social Anxiety Disorder is an illness in which the fear of social situations, specifically fearing judgment and embarrassment in those situations, is excessive. A teen might be excessively worried about how they look or will behave and might even avoid those situations to escape the anxiety, rather than enjoying that experience. Social Anxiety Disorder tends to also come within an extreme feeling of self-consciousness and a fear of humiliating oneself. If your teen is so afraid of social situations that they avoid going to school or parties because of it, they may be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Normal versus Concerning Social Anxiety
It’s absolutely normal for teens to feel uncomfortable in social situations. Most teens are naturally socially awkward; they are still finding their way in the world. However, when social anxiety is excessive, then there may be a problem to address. For instance, if your teen were so afraid of social pressures that it prevented them from going to school, then it might be problematic. On the other hand, having worry or anxiety before a major life event, prior to an exam, or right before asking a girl out, is considered normal. When anxiety and fear become excessive, it’s considered abnormal.
To make more of a distinction, there are certain fears that tend to naturally develop at certain ages and are also considered normal. For instance:
Children under two years old – may be afraid of loud noises, strangers, or separation from their parents
Toddlers – may be afraid of ghosts, monsters, sleeping alone, or strange noises
Adolescents – might fear bodily injury, illness, school performance, death, and natural disasters
Furthermore, many teens find a way to move through that their social anxiety without too much trouble. They might feel uncomfortable or tongue-tied at times but they don’t let it bother them. However, as mentioned above, when teens experience fears and anxiety that are excessive and get in the way of functioning in their day, they will need support from you and perhaps from a mental health professional.
Teens May Feel Everyone is Watching
Another thing to keep in mind is that some teens have the belief that they are the center of attention, even when they are not. For instance, an adolescent might be highly concerned about how they look because “everybody’s noticing”. In general, this is not necessarily a negative trait of adolescence. For some teens, it can lead to feeling invincible, invulnerable, and heroic. Feeling as though you are the center of attention is one of the classic inner experiences of being an adolescent.
And at the same time, a teen’s anxiety about the way they look or who they are can be exacerbated by this sense of having an imaginary audience. For some teens, feeling like everyone is watching can contribute to anxiety. The thought and feeling that everyone is watching can turn into a troubling experience. It may facilitate the development of depression and/or social anxiety.
How Parents Can Help
If you notice your teen experience the difficulties of social anxiety, here are a few things to consider:
- Educate yourself on teen social anxiety and the social pressures teens feel today. Although you might have experienced the butterflies when you were a teen, there may be much more to know about social anxiety disorder. Also, there are social pressures that exist today that perhaps didn’t exist when you were a teen. For instance, a teen wouldn’t even think about making a phone call. A text, Facebook message, or Tweet are much more cool and go a long way with friends.
- Encourage your teen to talk to someone right away. If your teen is feeling anxiety right in the moment and needs help, let them know that it can help a great deal if they talk to someone. Perhaps they need to pull their best friend aside and talk. Or maybe they need to talk to a teacher, parent, or school counselor if they are available. Talking to someone face to face can help reduce anxiety and help your teen feel more at ease with the situation they’re facing.
- Teach your teen breathing techniques that can support a relaxed state. If you don’t already know any breathing techniques yourself, this is another area where you can educate yourself first. There are many ways to slow down the breath in order to facilitate staying in a relaxed state. Anxiety quickly creates short and shallow breaths. But if your teen can remember to breathe deeply and slowly that will help them stay mentally clear and calm.
- Encourage your teen to practice relaxation techniques on a regular basis. In fact, another way to help is to practice relaxation with your teen. Together, you might choose an activity you both like, such as meditation, yoga, go on daily walks, listen to calming music, exercise, participate in guided imagery exercises, or simply have some quiet time to let go of thoughts in the mind.
- Ensure your teen has healthy lifestyle habits. Eating well, eliminating caffeine and sugar, sleeping well, and exercising regularly are all ways to reduce anxiety through simple lifestyle choices.
- Call a mental health professional. You may want to provide professional support for your teen. In fact, one of the most effective forms of therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a type of therapy that helps a teen find and change the thoughts and beliefs that lead to stress. CBT can also provide effective coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and respond to life in new ways.
These are suggestions to support your teen’s psychological health and social growth, especially during the challenges of social awkwardness that come with adolescence.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.