Many teenagers go through awkward periods during their middle- and high school years. If this social awkwardness begins to develop into social anxiety, your teen might have a hard time making and keeping friends. He or she might not be willing to join extracurricular activities or go out with peers; in fact, they might even begin refusing to go to school. As a parent, watching your child struggle can be heartbreaking. Understanding what social anxiety is and learning strategies for coping with the condition can help your teen look toward the future with hope.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of interacting with other people. It’s important to understand that simply shyness or being an introvert doesn’t mean that a teen has social anxiety. A teen with the condition might expect that others are judging them. They might think that they’re being watched and evaluated. Many teens go through an ego-centric phase (not dissimilar to toddlerhood) where they think they are the center of various situations. With social anxiety, this creates negative feelings such as fear, inadequacy, embarrassment, and humiliation. In time, this can develop into a more generalized anxiety disorder or depression.
Some of the symptoms of social anxiety include the following:
- Emotional distress when being introduced to new people.
- Fears of being criticized or being in a situation where they’re the center of attention.
- Trouble with friendships and romantic relationships.
- Panic attacks.
- Flushing or turning red when meeting people.
- Muscle twitches and tics.
Work on Lifestyle Changes
Teens with all types of anxiety, including social anxiety, can often benefit from lifestyle changes. Learning how to take good care of their bodies often leads to a reduction in mental health symptoms. Also, spending a lot of time ruminating or worrying about what others are thinking can make the condition worse.
Encourage your teen to get his or her mind off of the anxiety by exercising each day. Exercise has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. It can also stave off mild depression, which is a concern when someone has social anxiety.
Getting enough sleep is something that many teens have trouble with. Between circadian rhythm changes and the allure of smartphones and tablets, your teen might not be getting the sleep he or she needs. Sleep deficiency can make all types of mental health issues worse. Talk to your teen about going to bed at a reasonable time that will allow him or her to get the necessary amount of sleep. For most teens, that’s about 9 1/4 hours per night.
Finally, encourage your teen to eat well. Many teenagers rely on junk foods throughout the course of the day. Even if you know they’re eating a healthy dinner most days of the week, it’s not uncommon for teens to skip breakfast (or to pick up a sugary donut on the way to school) and to hit the vending machine for lunch. Not eating well can make stress feel more overwhelming, so encourage your son or daughter to focus on eating fresh fruits and vegetables, enough protein, and healthy carbs.
Work on Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises
When your teen starts to feel anxious and judged, learning how to mentally ground him- or herself can help them take control of the situation. Breathing exercises are effective for some teens. They can find a quiet place and simply focus on their breathing. If your teen is starting to feel panicky, they can breathe in slowly through the nose for the count of three, then exhale slowly for the count of five. As they begin to calm down, they can extend the counts when both inhaling and exhaling.
Progressive muscle relaxation is another good way to take control of emotions. Starting with the toes, slowly tense up each muscle group in the body, hold, and release. For example, your teen can tense his or her toes, hold for the count of five, then release. Then tense his or her ankles, hold, and release, and so on, moving up the body toward the head.
Finally, find some DVDs or online audio recordings of guided imagery or other types of relaxation exercises. If your teen knows they can calm down on their own, the social anxiety will begin to feel less overwhelming and scary.
Talk to Your Teen’s Guidance Counselor
Ask your teen how he or she feels about talking to the guidance counselor. This counselor works with students every day and has undoubtedly seen social anxiety before. He or she can make additional suggestions to your teen about ways to cope with the anxiety. The guidance office can also become a place where your teen feels safe and can go there during free periods or whenever the symptoms of social anxiety get too overwhelming. Even if your teen doesn’t want to go for counseling at school, it’s helpful if the guidance office knows the situation so they can step in if necessary.
Seek Professional Help
If your teenager’s social anxiety doesn’t improve after trying the above suggestions, it’s important to seek professional help. Your child’s pediatrician can refer him or her to the appropriate counselor or mental health specialist for their specific situation. Your teen might do well with cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy. Group therapy sessions might also be helpful. Some teens with social anxiety find medications to be helpful. The important thing is to get your teen the help they need to learn how to manage this anxiety; this will help them immensely as they enter adulthood.
If your teen is struggling with social anxiety, look into the various options available to help them. Left unchecked, the condition will not usually resolve on its own. Lifestyle changes can help, as can professional help. Your teen’s school might also have resources available. Talk to your teen’s primary care doctor to find out more about how you can help your adolescent cope with social anxiety.