Teenagers get older and experience new things. Then add increased responsibilities and expectations, and shyness and uncertainty can result. It’s the way of adolescence. However, when that shyness is fueled by fear, and it limits what your teen wants to participate in, it could be a sign of social anxiety disorder (SAD). Your teen can overcome their fear if you recognize the social anxiety symptoms in teens soon enough. Keep reading to learn the signs and how you can support your teen in managing their anxiety.
Is it Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?
First, let’s be clear. Many teens feel shy from time to time. And it can limit how much they want to participate in social activities. That’s normal. But, if your teen’s shyness causes them routinely to avoid new experiences and new people, it may be a sign of social anxiety disorder.
It’s believed that social anxiety disorder may be caused by factors in genetics, a person’s environment, society, and brain or physiological factors. It’s usually a combination that causes the disorder.
A 2016 NIHM study found approximately 12% of 13-year-olds were not shy, but rather were experiencing a social anxiety disorder. These are the teens chronically avoiding participation in social events or public activities. This avoidance is the hallmark sign of social anxiety disorder: an intense and persistent fear of embarrassment and humiliation, even if the fear is unfounded.
For some teens, a healthy level of social anxiety may serve as a source of focus and boosted energy to rise to the occasion, tackling it to the best of their ability. However, those with social anxiety disorder succumb to the fear to the extent that it is causing great distress and interferes with day-to-day activities.
Social anxiety disorder symptoms typically first appear during the mid-teenage years and are more common in women than men. And even though it is the third most common mental health disorder, it commonly goes undiagnosed. So, what are the social anxiety symptoms in teens?
What To Look For
Most teenagers go through periods of anxiety that coincide with the changes of adolescence. But those with social anxiety disorder experience debilitating fear that is disproportionate to the situation.
Here are the common social anxiety symptoms in teens:
- Very quiet, keeping to him/herself
- Withdraws if encouraged to talk
- Displays few facial expressions and keeps his/her head down
- Few friends
- Intense fear of situations where your teen perceives judgment by others
- Fear of acting stupid or foolish by others
- Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety when around unfamiliar people
- Fear of being embarrassed or humiliated by their actions
- A dread of social events that begin days or weeks in advance
- Fear and avoidance of social situations
- Severe test anxiety
- Poor school performance
- School refusal
- Irritability or anger before a social event
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Trembling or shaking when around others
- Difficulty speaking, shaky voice
Social anxiety symptoms in teens can also include physical symptoms, like headaches, stomach pains, nausea, and lightheadedness.
Not all these behaviors necessarily point to social anxiety disorder, but if you consistently recognize them in your teen, consider seeking an evaluation with a psychologist, counselor, therapist, or physician well versed in anxiety. The stakes are high. When teens avoid most, if not all, social interactions, it affects not only their relationships, it can also lead to low self-esteem, depression, and substance abuse. The most important thing you can do is support your teen and assist them in finding help.
What You Can Do to Help Alleviate Social Anxiety Symptoms in Teens:
Social Anxiety can be so severe that it interferes with work, school, and relationships. Teens can be very creative in their efforts to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable. And a lifetime of avoidance can create a lifetime of lost opportunities and unhealthy social skills that will follow them into adulthood.
Here are some ways you can help:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy is effective in treating social anxiety because it aims to reduce anxiety by eliminating beliefs or behaviors that fuel it. Anxiety is reduced through exposure, where they confront circumstances that generate the fear in set stages to develop the tools and confidence to be able to handle them.
- In addition to a cognitive approach, your teen needs assistance with managing the physical symptoms of the anxiety in the body. When anxiety is triggered, a person feels an increase in heart rate and breathing. These can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. If your teen can’t work past these physiological changes, anxiety can worsen. Calming strategies and deep breathing can help break the anxious cycle. Teaching your teen these techniques helps them manage anxious episodes.
- Another way of helping your teen manage their social anxiety symptoms is with Somatic Experiencing. This therapy, originally developed for treating trauma, is focused on nervous system regulation. Through learning to track activation in their body, your teen can better manage their nervous system and head off anxiety at its first signs.
- Perfectionism can be a result of social anxiety disorder because of the fear of not meeting high personal expectations. A willingness to try new things and make mistakes is part of the growth process. “Failures” always teach us something, and through the process of learning from mistakes, we become wiser and more knowledgeable than the person who always succeeds right away. Helping your teen understand this helps reframe this fear.
- Children and teens may not initially understand their fear is unreasonable. They don’t see that their fear often occurs without much external evidence to supporting it. And they often don’t make the connection that their fear fuels their negative self-thoughts. Help your teen recognize these thoughts are incorrect and unrealistic by introducing them to the practice of reality testing. Work with him/her to explore alternative, positive explanations to squash negative thoughts.
- Medication can sometimes be a helpful adjunct to alleviate social anxiety symptoms in teens. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), for example Prozac or Paxil, can be prescribed to target the symptoms your teen experiences. Child and adolescent psychiatrists near you can be found through the directory of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
- Finally, family therapy can be a helpful approach not only to shift dynamics in the family that may be contributing to your teen’s social anxiety, but also address the impact that your teen’s social anxiety may be having on the family.
Seek Professional Help
If you believe your teenager may be showing signs of social anxiety disorder, there are several ways a therapist can help. If you are concerned with your child’s behavior, a therapist can work with you to support your efforts. They can also work with your teen to develop a treatment plan to ease symptoms and establish healthy habits. If you’re in the Chicago area, contact Life Care Wellness Center today. If you’re outside of the Chicago area, find professional help for your teen through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Jean Tschampa, PharmD, LCPC, CADC, C-IAYT, BCC
Jean Tschampa is a co-owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She specializes in wellness, life transition, anxiety, and addiction treatment, and is a Board Certified Coach, as well as professional counselor. As a registered pharmacist, Jean can also provide medication therapy management for those experiencing issues with medication.