Social anxiety is characterized by intense feelings of distress in social situations, such as small talk, dating, public speaking, or simple eye contact. Social anxiety disorder currently affects 15 million American adults, with the average age of onset in the early teens. But that figure does not represent the over 2.6 million adolescents in the United States diagnosed with social anxiety, with the average sufferer taking an average of ten years before seeking help. Discussed here is how to look for the early warning signs of social anxiety, social anxiety and childhood development, and the various treatment methods which, when implemented early may prevent your child from developing social anxiety altogether.
The psychology of social anxiety
There’s no single event that causes social anxiety to develop in any person, but rather a genetic predisposition followed by various environmental factors such as bullying, teasing, domestic abuse, and isolation. Once developed, it can take the sufferer over a decade to seek therapeutic help followed by several more years of talk therapy and medication before seeing significant improvements. The best method for overcoming social anxiety is to stop its development early on and promote a healthy social environment for your child. The first step is knowing the signs and symptoms of social anxiety in children and young adults.
Social anxiety and childhood development
Shyness and introversion are distinct from social anxiety but very involved with social outcome, especially in early development. Shyness is characterized by nervous or timid behavior in the company of others while introversion is showing reservation when socializing, usually accompanied by a general avoidance of social gatherings. Shy children are significantly more likely to develop social anxiety and engage in socially avoidant behavior later in life. While introversion isn’t a great predictor itself of social anxiety, an introverted or shy child should be exposed to other children in a social environment to make certain the child is both familiar and comfortable around their peers.
Treating social anxiety at-home
The knee-jerk reaction to treating social anxiety in children is to throw them head first into a flurry of social gatherings hoping it’ll make them comfortable around other kids. Unfortunately, this tactic often overwhelms the child, leaving them even more anxious than before. A great way parents can start effectively socializing their child is to introduce them to a small group of other children and have them meet frequently. This allows them to have a group of friends and slowly feel more confident in their ability to communicate with others. A next step would be gradually introducing sports, clubs, and meet-ups with a larger base of peer-aged children. Working from the bottom-up in this fashion encourages familiarity and comfort around their peers while also not overwhelming them.
If your child is having a difficult time adjusting to social environments, you may start to consider seeking the help of a child psychologist. The most effective methods currently in use are: cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and exposure therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been the standard in the United States since the 1960’s for treating social anxiety. It involves finding the behaviors that lead your child to experience social anxiety and then correcting those behaviors gradually over time. Talk therapy, which we’ve all probably heard of at some point, is one of the simplest and most effective therapeutic methods available. Talk therapy entails speaking with a therapist in a safe environment and working out what causes your child anxiety and how to rationalize those feelings. Exposure therapy is similar to the at-home method I mentioned above but is usually reserved for the cases where the social anxiety is caused by social phobia.
Sometimes therapy doesn’t work out, and the anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain—usually related to dopamine and serotonin. In these cases, a therapist can talk to you about alternative options, which can include both psychiatric and holistic methods. Psychiatrists usually try and reserve psychiatric medications for children with severe symptoms that don’t improve with therapy. The most commonly prescribed medications for social anxiety are fluoxetine, paroxetine, and citalopram, which may produce unwanted side effects in your child. More holistic methods, which do not require a prescription, including using natural remedies, like CBD, B12, and herbal teas. Consider also seeing a dietician or a sleep specialist as diet and sleep are both important for combating anxiety. If you think your child is suffering from social anxiety don’t hesitate to contact a therapist or try some of these methods out yourself. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to change unwanted behaviors, so attacking them immediately is vital when dealing with social anxiety, especially in children