In the UK, 5 children in a class of 30 are now likely to have a mental health problem, the Children’s Society reports. The research portrays the stark reality facing many schools across the nation. Over the last year, anxiety in children has become an increasing concern for many parents and teachers. As we prepare to return to some kind of new “normal”, social anxiety, in particular, is having a debilitating effect on our young people.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the deep and overwhelming fear of social and performance situations. It’s a form of anxiety that affects a child’s thoughts and behaviours on a daily basis. It can interfere with their school, home and social life. It’s a fear of taking part in activities, performances or social events, especially where there is particular attention on them or where they feel they will stand out. This anxiety can be heightened when the young person feels judged, scrutinised or embarrassed by others.
Social anxiety in children may best be described as a disproportionate self-consciousness which goes beyond common shyness. A child who is socially anxious will find that their so-called “shyness” prevents them from joining in and enjoying many daily activities.
What are social anxiety symptoms in a child?
As a child and adolescent counsellor, I often get asked “does my child have social anxiety?”. As a teacher, you may face similar questions. If you are concerned about a child, it’s important to encourage parents or guardians to seek the help of a GP, who can refer their child for an assessment by a mental health specialist. There are, however, signs you can look out for in children who may be socially anxious.
Social anxiety can be shown in a child’s behaviour. For instance, they may appear withdrawn, or seek to withdraw when put on the spot or encouraged to talk in front of others. They may cry more than usual in these situations or have outbursts of anger. Young people with social anxiety will attempt to avoid interaction with other people all together and may spend a lot of time on their own. You may notice that they hold minimal eye contact or even refuse to speak. Children can sometimes feel so overwhelmed by their social anxiety, that they refuse to come to school at all.
There are also physical symptoms that you can look out for. The child may report feeling nauseous or having stomach aches. You might notice they blush frequently, especially when attention is on them. Social anxiety can also cause panic symptoms in a young person such as shaking, sweating and a raised heart rate.
What impact does social anxiety have on young people?
Due to the nature of social anxiety, many young people dealing with it struggle to speak up about their experiences. This can then cause them to feel unable to ask for help, so often they don’t receive the support they need. When a child doesn’t receive any help or support, their anxiety can begin to impact other areas of their life.
Often those who are socially anxious see an impact on their friendships and relationships with other people. They can struggle to initiate relationships and can end up feeling very isolated and alone. It can also impact other areas of their mental health and may lead towards low self-esteem and depression. A young person who is socially anxious can find it difficult to concentrate in lessons, and may also be fearful of asking for help with their work. As a result, they may begin to see their academic achievement being impacted. Social anxiety can sometimes lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms in young people where they turn to substance abuse or self harm as a means of handling their feelings.
How to help a child overcome social anxiety
If you are concerned that a child or young person may have social anxiety, here are a few ways you can aid them in managing their feelings:
Start a dialogue with them. Share your concerns and what you have noticed in their behaviour. Listen carefully to them and ask questions. Find out how they are feeling and what the experience is like for them
Help them to recognise the anxiety but also know they are not defined by it. Being socially anxious is not their whole identity and it can be managed with support and encouragement
Help them to set realistic goals. It’s important to work with the individual child and their unique needs when setting goals. You can gently encourage them into social situations or new activities at a pace they are comfortable with. Try starting with something that provokes the least anxiety and then gradually move onto new things. Work with them and encourage them as they master more difficult situations. When they feel discouraged or like they have failed, remind them of previous successes to help build their confidence
Find ways to help them practice interactions with others. Many children struggle with social interaction because they don’t know what to do. You could find ways to look at friendship skills together involving greetings, conversation starters and follow up questions
Prepare socially anxious children for situations that you know may cause them fear or distress. You cannot avoid all situations of this kind in school, but you can warn and prepare young people in advance, whilst reassuring them of your support
Encourage activities that help to relax the child. This could include deep breathing, sports or art. Ask them what they find helpful or particularly unhelpful
Signpost the child and their parents to seek the support of other professionals where you feel this is necessary. This may be another member of staff or seeking help from their GP
Social anxiety can be an overwhelming and debilitating experience for many young people, but with some understanding and support, we can help them know they are not alone in it. If you would like further information on how you can help your staff feel supported in the classroom, regarding children’s mental health and wellbeing, please visit here.