About 6 percent of Americans – or 17 million people – experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Social anxiety – which takes shyness to the extreme – often starts in late childhood or during the teenage years. Children and teens unable to learn how to master social anxiety can face serious consequences later in life. Social anxiety leaves children and teens unable to stay in school, professionals unable to hold down a job and partners unable to maintain a meaningful relationship.
Knowledge is Power
Parents of children and teens with social anxiety disorder often strive to help their loved ones not only overcome their fears, but thrive now and throughout life. However, the kindness of a parent’s heart can inadvertently contribute to a child’s fears. Knowledge is power – and the more parents know about social anxiety disorder, the greater their chances of succeeding in helping their children better cope with anxiety and fear.
The Worst Thing to Do
The natural parental instinct is to protect the child. Children with social anxiety often have a laundry list of situations that induce intense fear – and as a parent, protecting the child from these situations is priority number one. The primal instinct to protect appears to be the best thing a parent can do. But when it comes to social anxiety, it is one of the worst.
Children with social anxiety love to avoid. Avoidance behavior is often the simplest and most basic tactic to escape an anxious and distressing situation. Even adults turn to avoidance behavior, simply because logic suggests it will remove the fear and eliminate distress. In fact, adults depend on this logic all the time.
We do it every time we pop an aspirin to reduce a headache or constantly scratch an annoying itch. It’s rewarding to escape something distressing – plain and simple. But for children with social anxiety, there is a danger to this logic.
Children may develop a habit of making excuses not to engage in a social situation because of anxiety. As a parent, the more you allow avoidance, the harder it will be for your child to recover from the anxious situation. Implemented time and time again, avoidance behavior can even turn into an addiction.
The Consequences of Avoidance
Children who develop a habit of avoidance often grow up to avoid things that make them uncomfortable. Millions of perfectly competent adults who habitually avoid discomfort and distress go on to choose career paths that keep them behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. And the risk for poor relationships is just as significant.
People with social anxiety disorder may marry latter or not at all. The same people may cling to bad relationships out of fear for seeking out a new one.
The Best Thing to Do
Parents looking to help a child with social anxiety disorder need to understand one of the simplest and most basic truths: facing fears in small, successful steps is the most effective method of overcoming social anxiety. Children who learn to tolerate distress and discomfort go on to cope with anxiety, while those who avoid them habitually look to escape.
So, what’s the best thing you can tell a child with social anxiety? “I know you are anxious and it’s uncomfortable but nothing bad is going to happen.” Children who adopt this positive logic go on to overcome the debilitating symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
Let us know, do you encourage your socially anxious child to face fearful situations? Do you believe this is a successful way to help? Share your thoughts in the comments below.