Social phobia and shyness are very common problems of children. Shyness is a universal condition and most people have felt shy at some point. Shyness can be temporary and related to unfamiliar and strange situations in children and it goes away as soon as the child gets familiar. However, if the shyness persists, become significantly obstructive in daily functioning, and interferes with social and academic functioning, it is called Social phobia.
Signs and Symptoms of Social Phobia
There are individual differences in types of fears among children. Some children have stage fright- a fear of performing in front of a group. For some children, anxiety provoking situations could be reading in front of class, talking on the phone, saying hello to an adult and interacting with peers. These different situations have one thing in common, which is the fear of interacting with others and the worry that they will do something embarrassing. They experience butterfly in their stomach, sometimes feel nauseous, experience heart palpitations, tremble, blush, sweat, and have dryness in the mouth. Little children express their fears by crying, throwing tantrums, or refusing to speak. They begin to avoid and withdraw from social situations. Some children begin to hide their face under hair, try to look aloof like wearing head phones, refuse to speak and begin to miss school. Adolescents might begin to use alcohol to cope with their distress. Children as young as eight have been diagnosed with social phobia, although most youth develop it between the ages of 14 and 16. Adolescents have a more acute form of social phobia and their fears are more severe and frequent. Social avoidance limits opportunities for making friends and also prevents a child from learning how to interact with other children or adults.
Children with social phobia believe that they don’t know how to talk to people. They lack the capacity to interact socially. Treatment focuses on teaching children effective social skills so that they can function better and not engage in avoidance behavior.
It has been found that children who have experienced a recent change in life’s circumstances like moving in a new neighborhood, start a new school, or change in care givers. It is also important to see if the child exhibits anxiety in front of both adults and peers. A better indicator is how the child interacts with peers. A sure sign of social phobia is a fear of interacting with kids their own age. It is also important to see if the shyness lasts for just few minutes or does it persist for too long? Some kids are slow to warm up and that is not the indication of social phobia. If the child demonstrates significant amount of distress and daily functioning in all domains, is affected, it is believed to be social phobia. The child begins to avoid situations due to the fear of getting anxious in front of people and having heart palpitations, nausea, sweating, and vomiting before going to face social situations. Children with social phobia also suffer from generalized anxiety, depression, and sometimes they become truant too.
Genetic factors can make the child more vulnerable to having social phobia. Also, when the parents exhibit such behaviors, they become role models and children become socially avoidant and manifest anxiety like their parents. Parents love their children and sometimes they over protect them so that the child does not experience anxiety. However, when children avoid social situations, they are more likely to maintain their fears and anxiety.
Guidelines for Parents to Address Social Phobia
As parents, it is crucial to examine some factors if your child is experiencing social phobia. Firstly, you need to know whether the child want to interact with other children. If your child does not like social interaction, he or she may withdraw from social gatherings and ignore others’ social advances. These children will not benefit from the strategies discussed here.
Another factor to consider is whether your child’s distress in a particular situation is new. If the child had been attending social situations and going to school without any anxiety, it is likely that he/she is responding to a change in the situation. The child is not familiar with the children in school because the school is new and he/she is missing former playmates. It is possible that the child is reacting to the new distress like being assigned to a class where the teacher has a reputation of being “mean”. In such situations, allow your child to adjust to the new situation and this will help alleviate some of the anxiety. Or you may ask the teacher to assign a “special buddy” to help your child become familiarized with the new school situation.
If your child is described as “slow to warm up” and his/her symptoms are mild, the following strategies will help overcome social anxiety.
Listed below are some of the strategies that will help your child if he/she has a desire to interact with children, or seems to have suddenly become fearful in social situations because of a change in life situation like death of a family member, divorce, or move to a new school or neighborhood.
Designate a “Play Buddy”
When children are fearful and exhibit symptoms of social phobia, it is important to give them the opportunity for social interaction but in a gradual and slow manner so that they become accustomed to the easy and familiar situations first. The hope is that once they have mastered the familiar situations, we increase the difficulty level and they will be able to cope with new and demanding situations more easily. When you arrange a play date with other child, the child will learn to get used to interacting with others. Keep your child home, in a familiar situation and praise your child for approaching and playing with the other child. Some reward contingency will reinforce the positive behaviors, ( stickers, verbal praise, special priveledges can be used ). Tell your child to be brave and encourage him or her to play with the play date in order to earn the stickers or the reward that you have ascertained. The key is to praise the child for efforts to complete the task. Tell the child that as long as he or she tries, reward will be offered. Rewards may vary depending upon the age, interest, and sex of your child. The prize should be an incentive to the child and something that will motivate him/ her otherwise, it will not work. In this way, by designating a play buddy with whom the child gets an opportunity to play with, you will be able to gradually lessen the anxiety level of the child and facilitate social interaction at higher level in the future.
Hypnosis can also address social phobia. Please visit our Blossom Hypnotherapy page to learn how hypnosis can help reduce symptoms of Anxiety disorders.
Expose your Child to Social Opportunities with Other Children
Once your child has become accustomed to playing with the “play buddy”, you might want to increase the difficulty level of the situation and help him/her get used to more difficult situations. For example, the child can visit the friend in her or his home, or invite a friend for a sleep over, or invite two different friends at his or her place. In this way, the child will learn to interact from least anxiety provoking situation to more anxiety provoking situation but he or she will not be emotionally flooded. If you skip a step, the child may experience emotional flooding therefore it is crucial to increase the difficulty level of the situation gradually. Reward the child again for being brave and having social interaction even if the child felt scared. Some schools offer “friendship groups” that are led by school psychologists and guidance counselors and they might be helpful for children who have mild to moderate social anxiety.
Offer Opportunities to Interact with Adults
It is important for children to get exposed to situations which allow them to interact with other adults also, to decrease social anxiety. Encourage your children to say hello to the crossing guard, principal, greet the neighbors and your adult friends. You need to use your judgment and also consider the developmental stage of your child when you provide these opportunities. The child should be able to make a distinction between “safe” adults and strangers. You obviously don’t want your 3 years old to walk to the strangers and say hello.
Parents need to offer ample verbal praise and reward generously for efforts that the child makes to overcome his/her fears and demonstrates social interaction with others. Encourage children to be brave and be able to perform in front of others. In order to accomplish this, you may want to enroll the child in a dance, karate, or music lessons. The activity has to be interesting for children and parents need to reward the brave behavior by taking them for a recreational activity or a special treat.
If you have tried these strategies and they did not work and your child continues to have distress in social situations, it is time to seek professional help. A clinical psychologist who is trained in cognitive behavioral approaches to treat social phobia will be able to offer therapy. Treatment will need to combine social skills training and desensitization which allows a gradual exposure to anxiety provoking situations, ranging from least to most in hierarchy. Writer has explained imagery desensitization in another blog on panic disorder. Please refer to that blog for further details on this technique.
In summary, social phobia is a very common problem that children experience. It is very important to address it gently so that the child does not become completely withdrawn and avoidant. When parents follow the above guidelines, they are more likely to yield effective results and children can become more adept in dealing with their social anxiety. Parents need to be sensitive and empathetic to their needs, and offer guidance that is instrumental in alleviating their fears and anxiety. They also need to model for their children so they do not imitate their parents and justify their fears. Professional help incorporates relaxation training, desensitization, and social skills training to address social phobia and shyness.
Reference: The Parents’ Guide to Psychological First Aid by Gerald, P. Koocher, Ph.D and Annette M. Greca, Ph.D ; Chapter on Shyness and Social Anxiety by Deborah C.Beidel, Teresa Marine, and Lindsay Scharfstein