For teens with social anxiety, each day brings a battle inside their brains: a chronic sense of dread, constant self-criticism and fear of humiliation. Their anxiety may be triggered by walking down a crowded hallway at school, being called on in class, talking on the phone, or any other situation that involves interacting with others. About one in ten teens between the ages of 13-18 will experience Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD. Many more will experience occasional, low-level bouts of social anxiety; after all, feeling a little anxious and uncertain about social situations is a completely normal part of growing up. If you think your child may have Social Anxiety Disorder, reach out to a licensed therapist who can provide a diagnosis and treatment plan. If your teen is struggling with everyday social anxiety, these strategies can help you support them and teach them how to cope.
1. Know what SAD is… and isn’t.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is “characterized by persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.”
Symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Worrying about being judged negatively or humiliated
- Intense fear of interacting with strangers
- Avoidance of social events or talking to people
- Self-evaluation and self-criticism during and after social situations
- Worrying for days or weeks before an event
- Sweating, trembling, blushing, and/or rapid heart beat in social situations
- Stomach aches, nausea, muscle tension or disrupted sleep
Social Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being introverted or shy or preferring a small group of friends. The key is to recognize when symptoms become unmanageable, stopping your teen from having a fulfilling social life or doing things they really want to do. When teens avoid every anxiety-provoking situation, they miss opportunities to learn social skills and build confidence, thus fulfilling their fears of embarrassment.
2. Let them know they’re not alone.
Teens with social anxiety feel overwhelmingly self-conscious and like they’re the only ones with a problem. Talking honestly about social anxiety helps them normalize their feelings, understand that everyone experiences some anxiety in social situations and create more self-acceptance and self-compassion. Talk with your teen about your own experiences and be willing to listen. And for more persistent problems, look for a therapist-led teen support group that targets social anxiety.
3. Teach them how to breathe.
Researchers agree that one of the most effective strategies for managing anxiety is mindful breathing. A simple exercise that’s easy to teach teens is box breathing: exhaling to a count of four, pausing for a count of four, inhaling to a count of four, and holding air in the lungs for a count of four, then repeating. Teens can also visualize tracing the sides of a square box or a big balloon inflating and deflating as they breathe. This and other breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system and counteract the body’s stress response, which is responsible for shallow breathing, fast heartbeat and other physical signs of anxiety.
4. Help them uplevel their self-talk.
Teens with social anxiety may not even notice the steady stream of self-judgment and self-criticism they’re likely engaging in,for example, thoughts like, “You’re so stupid! Everybody is laughing at you! You’re going to screw up again!” But most social anxiety is accompanied and made worse by negative self-talk. You can help your teen become aware of the voice inside their head and realize that they can decide whether or not to believe the self-defeating thoughts. Teach your teen how to acknowledge their fears and counteract them with positive self-talk: “Yes, I’m really nervous right now, but I’ve been practicing and I know I’ve got this.” For more suggestions, see our post on Turning Negative Self-talk Into Confidence.
5. Support them in facing their fears at their own pace.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of social anxiety is that teens’ phantom fears have a very real impact by keeping them from being and doing all the great things they’re capable of. Most anxious teens are painfully aware that they’re missing out, but facing their fears all at once feels too overwhelming. Instead, help your teen set realistic social goals – like making a new friend or joining a club at school – based on what matters most to them. Then identify micro-goals they can accomplish step-by-step. Make sure they’re equipped with strategies for self-compassion, remind them that practice makes perfect, and celebrate their successes with them. With the right mix of acceptance and persistence, teens can tackle social anxiety and emerge as confident, capable young adults.