19 Apr 2018

Diary of a socially anxious kid

From Are We There Yet?, 9:30 am on 19 April 2018

Most kids just want to fit in – join in games, hang out with friends and know what to say. But many are thwarted by social anxiety. Katy Gosset talks to parents and a clinical psychologist about how to help children handle social interactions.

A photo of a sad looking teenage girl in the foreground. Behind her is a group of other girls talking

Photo: daisydaisy/123RF

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Most teenagers are ruled by their social lives.

But if 19 year old Lucy*, who suffers from social anxiety, kept a diary, there wouldn't be too much in it.

Her mother, Sarah*, says Lucy turned down most invitations, not because she didn't like her friends but because social gatherings made her too anxious.       

"If she's invited to something she goes into total panic because she knows she's going to have to deal with a crowd of people so then I get tears and anxiety and panic attacks that are quite severe sometimes," Sarah says.

Sometimes Lucy's whole body shakes as the anxiety takes hold.

"She actually said to me she sometimes feels like she almost leaves her body, and I guess that's her coping mechanism to try and deal with what's going on."

A photo of a mother comforting her upset teenage daughter who is sitting with her head on her hands

Photo: kmiragaya/123RF

Sarah says social anxiety has held her daughter back in many ways, preventing her from trying new activities.

"She will sit back, afraid of people watching her so it's a self-esteem thing. She feels people might laugh at her."

Lucy often watches other, younger children trying new things and feels frustrated that she can't bring herself to join in, Sarah says.

"It's quite a crippling thing and I don't know if people know how crippling it is, the anxiety."

Social anxiety is often driven by perfectionism and a fear of criticism or rejection by others, says clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher.

"Underlying it are often fears that something is wrong with us or we will do something wrong, such as making a mistake, going red in the face or performing poorly."

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

People with social anxiety worry that these mistakes will be exposed to others and they'll be judged negatively, Catherine says.

"Our worry brains can tell us we need to be perfect or flawless or, to the other extreme, we're destined for an epic YouTube-worthy fail and there's no in between.

"So anxious brains are often black and white brains – we're either on fire or it's a complete disaster."

Lucy's experience of turning down invitations and then worrying that she wouldn't be invited to anything else is a "lovely example of anxiety", Catherine says.

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."  

The anxiety stems from a primal alarm system that triggers a "fight", "flight" or "freeze" reaction and normally occurs when someone feels threatened, Catherine says.

That heightened sense of danger means anxious people often enter a social situation already on edge.

"So we're thinking about things like: no-one's going to talk to me, or they'll think I'm boring or what if I say the wrong thing, what if I trip up?"

Ultimately, these worry thoughts alter the way people act.

"So we can seem less engaged, look awkward or be over the top as we try to cover our anxiety or we can actually just avoid the whole thing in the first place and opt out of situations."
This means many young people don't expose themselves to the social situations where they would actually build up the skills and confidence to manage those experiences better.

A photo of a teenager trying to pull her anxious friend up from the floor in a school corridor

Photo: lopolo/123RF

Tips to help your socially anxious child

Build a solid understanding of what anxiety is and validate and normalise your child's struggle with it.

"The feeling is real. It feels dangerous. The challenge is the situation is not dangerous and that's the bit the child has to work through with support from Mum and Dad," Catherine says.

Don't always leap in to "rescue" them or answer questions on their behalf.

Children needed to learn to negotiate their own way into a social situation and to cope with its ups and downs, Catherine says.

"If they pull out when they're most anxious then those situations remain dangerous."

A photo of a lonely girl at the playground watching other kids playing.

Photo: redbranch/123RF

Encourage your child to face their fears by exposing them to social activities while they are feeling anxious, rather than waiting for the anxiety to subside first.

"They need to do life, do these things while anxious."

Find activities that have "scaffolding" such as a group that is led by an adult. This can allow the child to engage with others without having to take the lead or engage in free play.

In a school setting, socially anxious children might find it useful to have a "job" such as a library assistant where they can talk to others without having to ask to join a game.

"Integrating yourself into someone else's play or into a game, that can be quite tough."         

Don't allow your child to avoid anxiety-inducing situations by staying home from school or other activities.

"You're supporting them to be at school even if it's through tears and distress," Catherine says.

When they return home, focus on the things that went well rather than any perceived failures.

Limit the time spent talking about worries.

"Only allow so many worry questions a day or set aside a short worry time so it doesn't leak into every moment." (And make sure the worry time is not just at bedtime as it can start the child on a train of thought that's difficult to get out of.)

Ngā Taonga kōrero

Help your child to distinguish between a worry and a genuine problem such as bullying.

"Most children, when they learn this distinction themselves actually then start to be more robust about how they do deal with social situations and also they have the confidence that they don't need to come to Mum and Dad to fix it."  

Start by planning for anxiety and have realistic expectations for your child.

"Because if Mum's and Dad's expectation is that I should be able to go into this situation and be awesomely comfortable, that might not be the case", Catherine says.

However if the parents expected the child to get anxious and validated those feelings by accepting that the situation would be hard, the child would be better equipped to handle it.

"So we actually expect anxiety to turn up. We come up with a plan for it so the child goes into that situation much more realistically prepared for it and typically is going to manage it a lot better."

*Not her real name

A photo of a young children playing musical instruments. The girl in the foreground looks worried but is joining in.

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