How To Support Your Teen with Social Anxiety
America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic that has gripped the nation with unrelenting tentacles. You can read specifically about the statistical significance here.
Social anxiety has a crippling effect. The Adolescent Mental Health Initiative has already painted a portrait of how social anxiety has contributed to the impact of adolescents and their parents, and it identified how social anxiety in adolescents can manifest. In short: it’s debilitating, and it causes teens to avoid everyday experiences.
Potential anxiety triggers include speaking in front of a group of people, arriving after others are seated, being introduced to a room full of strangers, ordering from a menu at a restaurant, eating or drinking in a public space, returning items in a store, writing in front of a panel of people, using a public restroom, feeling fear in general social settings, the prospect of shaking hands, and countless more.
In many instances, those that suffer from social anxiety are fearful that they will embarrass themselves and be ridiculed or judged in these social situations. In turn, this produces discomfort and a negative self-evaluation. Most teens also experience potentially embarrassing physical symptoms like blushing, clammy hands, sweat, a shaky voice and trembling muscles. All of these are responses to a fear that they know can be excessive or irrational, but they often feel unable to control it.
In these instances, they find themselves wanting to endure the fear at the expense of their distress and hesitation to receive support. The American Journal of Psychiatry also identified that many teens that struggle with social anxiety turn to alcohol, substances, or develop an eating disorder as a result.
Supporting your teen in the midst of social anxiety can be heart-wrenching to watch, but it can also be fulfilling to navigate it well. While you may not necessarily be responsible for your teen’s social anxiety, you can directly influence it in a healthy way as you take major steps to demonstrate your love and support.
Here are five common pitfalls to avoid when supporting your teen in the process:
Being an anxious parent role model.
If you have social anxiety yourself, your teen may do as you do, rather than as you say. If you have social anxiety that promotes avoidance of specific social situations, having trouble meeting new people or feeling awkward carrying on a social conversation, your teen will pick up on some of these behaviors simply by imitation. If you help your own anxiety level, you can model better coping strategies and social skills for your teen toward meaningful and positive change.
Reacting critically to your teen’s fears.
You might feel anger or disgust instead of compassion for your teen’s social anxiety. As a parent, creating an atmosphere of understanding is a step toward building social confidence. At times, parents want to deny reminders that cause them to feel uncomfortable about their family life, but our reaction to the anxiety carries long-lasting influence.
Becoming too overprotective.
Step back a few paces and allow opportunities for your teen to build social confidence by conquering fears instead of jumping in for the “rescue.” Giving your teen room to learn and grow is vital, and even though you might think you are protecting your teen by jumping, it actually becomes counterproductive for growth and mastery over fears.
Saying their anxious thoughts are unfounded.
Rather than telling your teen that fears are not rational, ask questions that guide them to notice and challenge anxious thoughts and change the way of seeing social situations. Questions allow for your teen to challenge the negative thinking that promotes the fear of these social situations.
Confirming your anxious teen’s beliefs by sarcastically reinforcing your teen talk.
Find alternative ways to view the situation (not necessarily all positive!) and help your teen’s thoughts become more realistic and believable. Watch the sarcasm. Sarcastic remarks can contribute to your teen’s self-criticism and readily discount any progress toward positive and sincere thinking about social situations.
Teens with social anxiety typically find themselves underestimating their social skills and overestimating the social ease of everyone else around them. Pursue opportunities to overcome social anxiety with gradual goals, starting with the less demanding tasks and increasing the difficulty level.
Distress, dysfunction, and inflexibility are all cardinal signs that contribute to the inability for a teen to recover from natural anxiety-provoking situations and adapt emotionally to these stressors. Schools are often seen as the breeding place of your teen’s anxiety; make allies of your teen’s school staff as teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists and related staff personnel wrap around to navigate the social and academic demands.
Many teens suffer in silence from related symptoms due to social anxiety. With the right treatment interventions, support and compassion of family members and friends and ongoing practice, these can greatly improve the quality your teen’s social life.
Specificity of Social Anxiety Disorder as a Risk Factor for Alcohol and Cannabis Dependence, Julia Buckner et. al in Journal of Psychiatric Research, Volume 42, Issue 3
Negative Interpretation Bias in Social Phobiaby Edna Foa et. al in Behavior Research and Therapy, Volume 36, Issue 10
Interpretation Biases in Social Anxiety: Response generation, response selection, and self-appraisalsby Jonathan Hupert et. al in Behavior Research and Therapy, Volume 45, Issue 7