Social anxiety disorder is a condition that goes beyond shyness or the awkwardness of the teen years. All adolescents feel unsure of themselves at times. Some are introverted, which means that they need time alone to refresh themselves after being out with friends or in a large group. Some are shy, which means that they might not be outgoing with people they don’t know well. All of these are normal and do not indicate a disorder. A teen with social anxiety disorder, however, have actual fear and anxiety over social situations. Here’s what you need to know about the condition and how you can best support your teen.
Identify Social Anxiety Disorder
Simple shyness or preferring to avoid large crowds is not the same thing as social anxiety disorder. If your teen is fearful and has physical signs of anxiety when he or she needs to interact with others, however, it’s possible that they have the condition. The fear and anxiety in social anxiety disorder is not proportionate to the activity. For example, sweaty palms and a raised heart rate before giving a speech in front of a class is normal. Having severe symptoms before going to a restaurant with friends is not.
Your teen might experience heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, or shortness of breath when confronted with the need to interact with or perform in front of others. Schoolwork, extracurricular activities and friendships might be affected. If your teen is experiencing difficulties in various aspects of his or her life, the anxiety should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.
Talk to Your Teen
During the teen years, it can be difficult to determine whether anxiety is normal or indicative of a disorder. Sometimes teens will overreact to various events without there actually being a problem. Try to notice whether there’s a pattern to your teen’s anxiety. If he or she gets very nervous one time, it’s very possible that it’s related to the normal ups and downs of being a teen. On the other hand, a teen with even low-level anxiety on a regular basis could be struggling with a disorder.
Talk to your teen and ask how he or she is feeling about various social events that are taking place. Are there physical symptoms that go beyond mild, short-term anxiety? Does your teen want to skip school, birthday parties, and other places where they will need to talk to others. Does he or she feel like others are watching or judging them? All of these could be symptoms of a developing social anxiety disorder.
Your first resource to contact is your teen’s pediatrician or family doctor. He or she is well-versed in normal social development in teens and can let you know whether your teen’s feelings are a normal part of growing up or something more serious. They’ll also be able to refer you to a mental health counselor if necessary. Depending on the severity of the anxiety, your teen might be given medication, have cognitive behavioral therapy, or join a support group (or all three).
Encourage your teen to be open and honest with his or her therapist. Just seeing a counselor for the first time can make your already-anxious child even more nervous, but that is often par for the course. As therapy continues, your teen will learn coping mechanisms and tricks for dealing with intrusive, unwanted anxious thoughts. Teens in group therapy might find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. If your child is given medication to take, make sure that it’s being taken as directed.
Work on Relaxation Techniques
If your teen goes to therapy, he or she will learn some relaxation techniques that can help them learn to relax, both when anticipating an event and when they’re actually there, interacting with others. Learning how to do these yourself will allow you to encourage your teen to do them with you talking him or her through the steps, if necessary.
One way for your teen to relax is called grounding. By focusing on what’s actually happening, rather than his or her fears about what could happen at that party or during English class at school, anxiety symptoms can be lowered. If your teen is having a hard time getting grounded, you can prompt them to name three things they see, something they smell, something they hear, and so on, going through the senses. This will help your teen remember that everything is fine right now.
Another relaxation technique is meditation. There are many ways to meditate, from progressive muscle relaxation or visualization, to simply focusing on breathing. Find out what your teen’s counselor recommends and go from there.
Don’t Let Your Teen Just Sit Home
A big part of overcoming social anxiety is just getting out there and doing things, even if you’re uncomfortable. This does not mean that you should force your teenager to go and do everything that comes up! It might take some time to work up to being able to drop him or her of at a party. Try to take small steps, like having your teen go to the door to pick up a younger sibling from a play date, or asking them to raise their hand to volunteer an answer at school.
Work with your teen’s counselor to find out how you can encourage your teen to do things, even if they’re anxious. The therapist will have some good ideas for baby steps that will get your child on the road toward being able to face the situations that are causing anxiety.
Discovering that your teenager has a social anxiety disorder can be overwhelming, but with an understanding relationship, open communication, and a good mental health counselor, your teen most likely will be able to overcome this issue and have a satisfying social life. If you have concerns about your child’s social development, contact his or her doctor for an evaluation to rule out or confirm a social anxiety disorder.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.