Imagine your teen being terrified to make friends or talk to a restaurant server because they constantly worry about being laughed at. And imagine the hopelessness and loneliness they’d feel as a result, especially during such an important social time in their life. For Marielle Cornes, a teenager who gave a TED Talk about her social anxiety, those situations and emotions illustrated her life well.
Like Marielle’s family, you may not have to imagine these behaviors and feelings in your teenager 一 you may see them daily. Almost 32 percent of adolescents experience social anxiety, with 8.3 percent being severely impaired by the disorder. Social anxiety is all too real for many teens and families.
While over 75 percent of adults who have social anxiety experienced it first during their childhood or teen years, intervention in those developmental stages can help. According to research, prevention and early intervention can reduce the incidence and burden of social anxiety.
How to help
To help identify what signs to look for and how to intervene talked to Dr. Nazanin Moali, a clinical psychologist and the owner of Oasis2Care who works with both adults and adolescents, for her knowledge. While her responses aren’t meant as a diagnostic tool, they can serve as a starting point. Ahead, read the symptoms and suggestions she provided.
Anxiety and being shy are not the same
While the two are often confused, it’s important to note that social anxiety isn’t the same as being shy or reserved 一 it impacts one’s life in deeper ways. “Social anxiety is different than being very shy, as those afflicted with social anxiety often feel terrorized by the idea of interacting with others and avoid social interactions,” Dr. Moali explained.
Social anxiety disorder also can present itself in a variety of ways that are felt and seen both internally and externally.
How to identify anxiety
According to Dr. Moali, some signs in teenagers are fear about social events, public performances, or other people’s observations. Teenagers may also feel anxiety in situations such as “joining a conversation with peers, playing a musical instrument in public, or even walking down the street.” She added that the disorder is usually paired with feeling inadequate and hypersensitive.
What’s especially debilitating about social anxiety is its intense and cyclical nature. “These fears often lead teens to avoid social events at all costs, which strengthens the cycle of anxiety and avoidance,” Dr. Moali said. In other words, how people want to respond to their anxiety is exactly what will exacerbate it.
What parents can do
However, parents aren’t helpless in these situations; in fact, they play a crucial role. Dr. Moali suggests parents start by having a private, thoughtful conversation with their teen.
“The first step is to talk to your child about what you have been noticing in private. Be mindful of the language you are using and focus on describing the symptoms instead of putting labels on them,” she said.
“During the conversation, talk about how common social anxiety is and discuss how treating the disorder will provide long-term benefits. Afterwards, ask their permission to offer support and feedback, if needed.”
Then, when social situations arise, Dr. Moali suggests parents take the difficult position of encouraging their teens to attend moderately anxiety-provoking events.
“It’s important to note that the more teens avoid social interactions, the stronger the cycle of anxiety becomes,” she explained. “[An] ongoing and systematic approach to attending social events is correlated with [a] reduction of anxiety symptoms in the long-term.”
Parents can also provide their teens with self-care tools they can practice on their own. According to Dr. Moali, research shows mindfulness can lead to mood and life improvement; she encourages practicing mindfulness and meditation for around five to 10 minutes a day. Teens can use phone apps, like Headspace or Calm, as aids. These apps provide breathing exercises, tips, and more.
And lastly, if your teen continues to struggle with social anxiety, seeing a professional is best. “If the symptoms persist, contacting a licensed mental health provider and starting treatment might be a great step,” Dr. Moali said. “Many teens develop a distorted image of themselves, which, if untreated, may impact their future social and professional endeavors.” To find the best mental health professional for your teen, check out Psychology Today’s database.