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Social Anxiety Is My Old Friend

Helping your anxious child master their fears.

Key points

  • Painful childhood memories not only stay with you but potentially alter your behavior for years to come.
  • Mindfulness practices such as focused breathing and guided imagery are important skill sets for anxious children.
  • Anxious children often develop an intricate internal dialogue that often fuels their uncomfortable feelings.
  • Parents who are curious about their child's internal world greatly help their child develop coping strategies and resilience.

I have a secret to share: I suffer from social anxiety.

I have never typed that before, let alone said it out loud. Many of my family and friends — and especially my clients — may be surprised to hear this from me. I am outgoing and friendly, even engaging. But what is going on inside tells a different story.

I am a child of the ’60s and ’70s. We didn’t use phrases such as “social anxiety” or even “anxiety.” We used words like “shy.” I was referred to as a “shy child,” and I hated that phrase. I hated the way my mom would attempt to explain my quiet demeanor to other people. She would lower her voice with an apologetic tone and say, “She is very shy.”

They would look at me. You know that look — a bit curious, a bit of pity. Then they would quickly forget I was present. I am not sure which hurt most.

I grew up with a sense that I was invisible. This is challenging to explain to someone who has never experienced anxiety or intense feelings of insecurity. To compensate for this horrible feeling of being invisible or the fear that I would become invisible, I developed strategies to adapt.

As a child, I would categorize people: safe or not safe. I would seek out people who felt safe to me. Perhaps I judged them by their appearance or by past experiences: People who looked like my grandmother or favorite teacher were familiar, and safe.

My first day in middle school, I recall getting lost in a long hallway. I still can remember the tightness in my throat, the nausea rising in my stomach, and the fear as I searched for a “safe” person to approach for help. I found her. She was in 7th grade. I don’t remember her name now, but I remember her face and how she helped me find my next classroom. I guess I was good at assessing people, even back then.

This is one of the skills I strive to help my clients develop: trusting your instincts. Learning to tune in, to be present with yourself, helps you to develop that skill.

I teach my clients to use focus on their breathing, to take a few deep breaths in and out. This is extremely powerful and significant to learning how to quiet the mind enough to hear one’s own instincts.

In that hallway, if I had started to really panic or had pulled out my phone and texted my mother for help, I would have skipped the step of checking in with myself, and missed a crucial step in my development.

Being present with your thoughts and feelings is a good skill for everyone, but is especially important for those with social anxiety.

What does social anxiety feel like? Are you extremely afraid of being judged by others? Are you self-conscious in everyday social situations? Do you avoid meeting new people? Do you overthink what you said after spending time with friends?

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is extreme fear and anxiety that leads to avoidance of work, school, and other activities. It is common to feel nervous in new situations or social situations, but people who suffer social phobia experience "overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations, and "have a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions."

How can you help your child if you suspect they are suffering from social anxiety?

  • Speak to a trusted doctor, therapist, or school counselor for suggestions on how to assist your child.
  • Consider enrolling them in therapy with a licensed professional.
  • Commit to a mindfulness practice for you and your child that focuses on quieting your mind and listening to your heart.

The best thing you can do for a socially anxious child is to show up for them. Don't tell them to "stop acting this way." Don't try to "scare" the behavior out of them. Get curious about what they are thinking and feeling. Help them develop skills such as breaking down their thoughts and creating opportunities to feel a sense of control. Your focus and support can help them to understand that they are not alone and that they are safe with you, both physically and emotionally.

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