Posted: Sep 30, 2013 11:00 AM
It's perfectly natural to feel shy or self-conscious at times. Many kids experience a racing heart or flutter in the stomach when meeting new people or performing. But for some kids, the feeling is paralyzing. It's important to know when to seek help.

Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as Social Phobia, is characterized by an extreme and persistent fear of meeting new people and/or embarrassing oneself in social situations. It affects roughly 0.5 to 4 percent of children and can significantly interfere with normal development.

Social Anxiety Disorder affects roughly 0.5 to 4 percent of children and can significantly interfere with normal development.

What does this really mean? It means that there is a big difference between a child who might be a little shy and slow to warm up in social situations and a child who experiences extreme fear in the face of social situations. While many children experience some worries when transitioning to a new classroom, reading in front of the class or attending parties with peers, kids who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder go into a panic. In a nutshell, they worry so much that people are either looking at them or are likely to reject them (in fact, they tend to overestimate potential rejection) that they experience significant anxiety. They also tend to spend a lot of time in school worrying about being called on in class. So much so, in fact, that they might actually miss the lesson being taught.

For kids with Social Anxiety Disorder, the extreme feelings of shyness and self-consciousness that plague them day to day build into very real fears that cause them to shut down and refuse to participate in age-appropriate activities.

It's helpful to understand the anxiety responses and common symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder when considering whether or not to seek help for your child.

What it looks like

When confronted with new social situations or in anticipation of situations that might result in rejection or embarrassment, kids with Social Anxiety Disorder often exhibit one or more of the following anxiety responses:

  • Excessive crying
  • Excessive clinging
  • Tantrums
  • Blushing
  • Panic (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, feeling dizzy)
  • Freezing up

Some common symptoms

Plenty of children require extra time to warm up to new social situations. Often, parents find that preparing kids with as many details as possible about an upcoming event helps ease them into it. Even with advance warning, some kids simply like to watch and wait before they join the fun. Either way, kids who are slow to warm up generally do find their comfort zones and join the fun at their own pace. Kids with Social Anxiety Disorder, on the other hand, go to great lengths to avoid any and all social situations.

Common symptoms of Social Phobia include the following:

  • Consistent and extreme fear of situations involving new people
  • Anxiety attacks when anticipating or attending social events
  • School refusal
  • Psychosomatic complaints (headaches, abdominal distress)
  • Extreme fear of social performance (reading in front of the class, being called on by the teacher)
  • Difficulty transitioning from home to school or to other activities (sports, classes, parties)
  • Poor concentration in school

Ways to help

There are a few things parents can do to help children with Social Anxiety Disorder manage their symptoms. The most important thing to do is to remain calm, as parental stress can intensify anxiety symptoms for the child. Beyond that, try to be positive and supportive, and take a proactive approach to helping your child.

  • Anticipate and plan for difficult transitions (a late arrival to school, for example, can relieve the fear of being watched by other students and ease the transition)
  • Teach relaxation breathing and visualization
  • Keep a stress ball in your child's desk
  • Listen to your child's feelings and worries without judgment
  • Arrange a small play group
  • Assist with play dates and play groups to help your child ease into social interactions
  • Work with your child's teacher to create a "safe place" for your child to go when feeling anxious
  • Avoid pointing out or discussing your child's anxiety in front of others

When to seek help

If your child refuses to attend school regularly, often reports headaches, stomachaches or other psychosomatic symptoms, and/or the anxiety interferes with other normal daily activities, it's a good idea to seek an evaluation. Social Anxiety Disorder can be paralyzing for young children, who often struggle to seek help independently. It can affect school performance, friendship building and even family functioning. For more information on Social Anxiety Disorder and other childhood anxiety disorders, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (AADA).

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