Meeting new people or speaking in front of a large crowd can be hard for anyone. For a teen with social anxiety it can be downright debilitating. From an intense fear of being judged by others to an overwhelming sense of making a complete fool of themselves, a socially anxious teen might avoid new or uncomfortable social situations as a way to minimize their anxiety.
Avoiding a potentially scary social situation can feel super relieving in the moment. But what happens when it starts getting in the way of your teen’s life? What if it gets in the way of them being able to participate in extracurricular activities, make new friends, or even make it to school for the day? As a parent of a socially anxious teen, your gut instinct might tell you to give your teen a break, to let them stay home from school for the day. We get you. You love your teen and want to take their pain away. In that moment, you truly believe that that’s what your teen needs, or that’s what’s going to make things better.
Here’s the thing… When you give in, what this teaches your socially anxious teen is that it’s okay to avoid what makes them uncomfortable – to retreat into themselves because the outside world and other people are scary and will judge them. It sets it up for them to have a harder time as they grow up – not only to make connections with other people, but to gain the independence that they crave. It can also lead to a lot of other challenges, including low self-esteem, anxiety in other parts of their life, and even depression and substance use.
Perhaps for your teen with social anxiety, it plays out like this:
You’re at a crowded grocery store with your teen and you’re in search of an item that you just can’t find. You’re exhausted since it’s the end of the day. All you want to do is grab your groceries and get home to make dinner. You ask your teen to approach a store clerk to find that last item on your list so you can finally get home. Your teen spots the clerk – someone who looks around the same age as them, maybe a little bit older. She looks vaguely familiar, like she might be from the same high school. Your teen freezes up, starts turning red, and you notice their hands are visibly shaking. You don’t have time for this – “Are you serious?” you say to them rolling your eyes, and approach the store clerk yourself. Your teen takes a shaky breath, casts their head down, and wanders away.
In that moment, there’s so much going on. Your immediate reaction to seeing your teen freeze up might be to feel annoyed and get snappy. After all, is it really that hard to talk to a store clerk? At the end of the day, it’s just a simple task that you’re asking your teen to do for you. You roll your eyes and end up just doing it yourself, since it’s so much easier than convincing your teen to do it.
You might even go from being extremely annoyed with your teen to overly understanding. As a parent, you might find yourself relating to their experience, remembering how awkward it was for you when you were a similar age. You might even equate their behavior to them just being shy. After all, it’s normal for teens to get self-conscious in front of their peers. And that’s true – between hormonal changes, finding their identity, and often just wanting to belong, it’s normal for teens to get in their own heads especially when interacting with others. You decide to give your teen a break and let them wander away instead of talking to the store clerk. This might be an isolated incident, but you might notice this becoming more and more frequent; your teen starts missing school, doesn’t have as many friends as they used to, or avoids being in unfamiliar social situations.
It’s true that helping a teen with social anxiety can be very difficult, especially if your parental instinct tells you it’s okay to give in to the temporary relief from the anxiety provoking situation. However, what we know about anxiety, including social anxiety, is that avoidance actually makes things worse in the long run. If we can learn how to support our teens by validating their experience while encouraging them to face their fears, we can not only help reduce their anxiety, but also increase their confidence in the long run.
The biggest downside to not being able to help your teen overcome their social anxiety is that it might lead to even more difficulties down the line, both for you as a parent, as well as for your teen. It can lead to your teen isolating from others, which can in turn impact your family life and your ability to connect with them. This can potentially impact your teen’s schoolwork, especially if a big fear is being called on in class or giving a big presentation. Their ability to maintain friendships may be impacted, especially when they learn that they can decrease their anxiety by avoiding social situations. It can lead to low self-esteem, especially since a big component of social anxiety is the fear of being judged by others.
When your teen is able to overcome their social anxiety with your help, it can help make changes in their lives — from giving them more confidence in social interactions, to helping them build their self-esteem and self-worth. Those simple tasks, such as asking a question to a store clerk, become just that: simple. Suddenly, they’re able to initiate conversations with peers without the fear of being completely judged. Sure, they might still feel nervous, but they’ll be able to recognize that it’s a temporary feeling and that it won’t impact their life to the extent that they felt like it might before. And you as a parent will feel more confident in your teen’s ability to thrive in their interactions with others and slowly gain their independence and happy healthy connections.
Although you are struggling with helping your teen with social anxiety now, you can learn to help them get through their biggest fears.
Here at Simi Psychological Group, we can help your teen get a hold of their social anxiety, while supporting you as a parent to help support your teen.
Take a look at these pointers to see how you can help your teen with social anxiety.
Number 1: Really gain an understanding of what social anxiety is and what it is not
You might be thinking, what is social anxiety anyways? It’s easy to equate your teen’s social anxiety to them just being shy. But there’s a key difference. Shyness is a stable personality trait, where your teen is a little slower to warm up, especially in new social situations. You might’ve noticed that your shy teen was a shy child too, who might’ve been initially nervous in new environments, but was eventually able to feel more comfortable and go about their day. This is in comparison to social anxiety, where the person has a paralyzing irrational fear related to being humiliated, judged, or perceived negatively by other people.
A teen with social anxiety doesn’t just feel a little bit nervous before being in a social situation; they experience intense anxiety that includes panic-like symptoms that can include rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking, sweating, trembling, dizziness, and even feelings of nausea. Those physical symptoms can be too much to take, and your teen will find relief by avoiding situations that may cause such a strong reaction.
This can include limiting their interactions with peers, speaking up in a class, or even ordering at a restaurant. As a result, their ability to function, including maintaining relationships or attending school, is highly impacted.
Understanding what your teen is experiencing in those moments of extreme anxiety is the first step in being able to understand where they are coming from and how to help support them. Here at Simi Psychological Group, we can help guide you to figure out what is internally going on for your teen in those situations, and tease apart whether their experience is what we’d typically expect of a teen versus something a little more serious.
Number 2: Validate, validate, validate!
When addressing your teen’s social anxiety, it’s really important not to minimize what he’s going through. As frustrating as it can be or as small as the situation seems to you, dismissing what your teen is going through sends the message that their experience and emotions are an overreaction and that they don’t matter.
Instead, try to get on their level and really understand what’s going on. By doing so, your teen will feel heard and will begin to understand what they’re feeling is completely real. They’ll also be more likely to open up, not be as hard on themselves, and may come to you for more support in the future as well.
Following a specific situation where you see your teen getting visibly flustered, check in with them afterwards, saying what you noticed in an open, nonjudgmental way. Your teen might pull away and not want to talk, and that’s okay. Even having a small talk with them and opening it up will send the message that you’re noticing Validating your teen doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them – it sends that message that you get where they are coming from, and that their emotions in that moment are real and make sense. This truly helps you connect with your teen.
At Simi Psychological Group, we work on helping teens validate themselves. By giving them space to process their experiences and recognizing that they are not alone. We also work with parents using role plays and other strategies to help them find the words to be able to truly connect with their teen.
Number 3: Help them gradually face their fears
It’s natural to want to help protect your teen from a situation that gets them super anxious. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help them in the long run. On the contrary, while they might have the temporary relief from their anxiety in the moment, it makes future social situations seem even bigger and harder to overcome.
Help your teen by aiding them in facing their fears gradually. This may look like encouraging them to order food next time you go to a restaurant when you typically would order for them; or even a step smaller – smiling at the server. The key is to make it super gradual, starting with a situation that is somewhat less anxiety provoking, and gradually working toward conquering situations that induce more anxiety
When your teen is able to gradually face their fears, they will not only improve their social skills, but also their confidence in such situations. They will be able to recognize that they actually have the skills that they thought they didn’t have. Even if they feel anxiety in the moment, your teen will be able to recognize that, “hey, I feel anxious but I can actually get through this”. Keep in mind, this may take some time and can be very difficult for your teen. Be sure to continue validating and praising them. Check in with them afterwards too to see how that was for then and where their anxiety is at.
Here at Simi Psychological Group, we can help guide exposure, including making a hierarchy of anxiety-provoking situations, and aiding your teen in gaining confidence at each step to be able to challenge themselves more and put themselves in more anxiety provoking situations. We will also aid you as the parent in helping your teen face their fears and instead of running away.
Number 4: Express your own emotions and model taking risks
It’s really important for you as a parent to be able to talk to your teen about when you yourself are feeling anxious, especially in social situations. By doing so, you normalize the emotion and let them know it’s okay to talk about it. If you’re in a situation that makes you slightly nervous, talk about it and put yourself in that situation! Talk about what’s making you anxious, how you’re feeling, and how you feel after the situation.
By putting yourself in an anxiety provoking situation and verbalizing to your teen that you’re feeling anxious, you’re modeling what you’d like to see from them. You’re also sending the message to your teen that what they’re feeling is completely valid, and that they’re not alone to sometimes feel overwhelmed in social situations. This will not only help your teen feel more comfortable to speak about their fears with you, but also give them the confidence to put themselves out there.
At Simi Psychological Group, we can provide you with space to talk about your own anxieties, and how you can take that as an opportunity to help empower your teen.
It’s tricky knowing exactly how to help a teen with social anxiety, but being able to send the message to your teen that you understand and support them will open up the opportunity to help them move toward change. You absolutely can find the middle ground between giving into their anxiety (e.g., helping them avoid) and coming off as uncaring and annoyed. We’re here to help!
Helping your teen conquer their social anxiety will help them develop relationships with others, gain the independence that they crave, and feel better about themselves. Here at Simi Psychological Group, we can help give you the tools to increase both your teen’s and your confidence in tackling their fears that are getting in the way of them connecting to others. Please give us a call at (805) 842-1994 for a free consultation.