Teenagers with Social Anxiety

by Melissa Skinner, M.A., LCPC

Social Anxiety Disorder is when a person has an irrational and persistent fear of social and performance situations. A person with SA has an overwhelming fear that they will embarrass themselves and that other people will dislike them. SA is the third most common mental health disorder, however many parents are not familiar with the symptoms related to the disorder and often mistakenly assume their teenager is just shy. Unfortunately, because the disorder is often dismissed as shyness, many teenagers live with the disorder throughout adulthood and are never diagnosed.

SA does have an element of shyness, but the difference is in the level of severity. SA pervades every aspect of a persons life. Teenagers may go to great lengths to avoid any and all social or performance situations. They may not be able to leave their house without experiencing extreme anxiety. They may be incapable of performing in school and unable to make friends. Normal activities like walking into the school cafeteria to eat lunch, can create extreme anxiety. Older children with SA are at a greater risk of developing a substance abuse problem, if they start self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. The substance becomes their tool for relaxing and increasing confidence.

The signs and symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder may include:
-Rapid heartbeat
-Shaking or trembling
-Muscle tension
-Social Isolation

The best therapy for Social Anxiety is CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). CBT focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors, as well as emotional responses. When treating an adolescent with Social Anxiety, progressive desensitization or exposure therapy is very effective. This treatment involves over the course of therapy, progressively putting the client into the situations that trigger their anxiety and essentially the anxiety is dulled down. This type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is used in conjunction with various relaxation techniques, to manage anxiety levels. An example of a first step in treatment, might be for a teenager to close his or her eyes and imagine walking into the school cafeteria, staying for a few minutes and then leaving. The second time, the teenager might imagine walking into the cafeteria, looking for a seat and sitting down. The exposure occurs in a graded fashion, beginning with mildly or moderately difficult situations. Ultimately the teenager would put him or herself into that actual real life situation, however by that point, the event has hopefully lost its power to trigger anxiety.

For parents there are some simple strategies for helping your teen manage social anxiety. Help them to identify their negative thoughts and restructure them into positive thoughts. For instance, if your child is avoiding a particular situation and confides in you, try re framing their negative self talk. There are so many other potential positive outcomes, so encourage them to entertain these other possibilities. Most often their fear of being scrutinized in public is unfounded and they need the help of an adult to challenge their thinking. Some relaxation techniques to teach your child and even to participate in with them, are deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, listening to music, stretching, laughing and hugging.

Melissa Skinner is the founder of Northwest Counseling & Wellness and a Licensed Professional Counselor. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 872/222/3132