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Tips for Helping Your Teen Deal With Social Anxiety

written by: CathleneSmith • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 10/21/2014

A large component of the teenage experience is socialization. Teens usually gravitate towards groups, parties, friends and relationships outside the household. What happens when paralyzing fear interferes with the teen's socialization? What does a parent do when their child becomes isolated?

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    Does your teen fear social situations? Specific social anxiety in teenagers refers to one segment or activity in the teen’s life. The specified fear may include speaking in front of a group, eating in front of others, writing in public, or engaging in an activity where they are the focal point.

    Generalized social anxiety is more debilitating as it expresses fear and panic in many areas of the teen’s life. It may be difficult to go to class, eat in a cafeteria, talk on the phone, apply for a job, attend parties, or converse with peers. The teen experiencing generalized social anxiety is more apt to self-isolate than face public ridicule.

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    Breathing Exercises

    Anxiety affects breathing patterns. Under distress, the teen may experience light-headedness, shallow breathing, a feeling of suffocation, dizziness, disorientation or heart palpitations.

    Teach your child to slow down rapid breathing and to regulate inconsistent respiration patterns. Simple breathing exercises are the best defense against anxiety triggers and should be practiced regularly.

    While sitting up straight, have your child take a deep breath through the nose and hold it for four seconds. Next, they should slowly release the respiration through the mouth while mentally counting to ten. Repeat the pattern at least three times. Practice when anxiety is not triggered helps re-enforce the learned technique.

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    Face Fear Head On

    Desensitization is part of cognitive therapy. By exposing the teen to anxiety triggers and allowing them to work through the panic, the child will be able to face their fears. Practice, patience and repetition are important. Desensitization does not guarantee that there will not be a relapse but arms the teen with anxiety fighting behaviors.

    Have the teens write a list of sites or activities that cause them the most angst. Some signs of anxiety may appear while your teen is making this list because just the thought of approaching these activities can cause apprehension. Do not tackle each event or activity all at once. Methodical tactics combined with patience increase the odds of success in helping your child deal with social anxiety.

    Start out slowly. Begin with the least anxious activity on the teen’s list. Prepare your teen with deep breathing exercises, gum or hard candy. Sucking or chewing on a piece of candy eliminates dry mouth and helps regulate breathing patterns.

    Example: Eating in Public Desensitization Exercise

    Start at a fast food restaurant. Encourage your teen to approach the counter and order alone. Do not overload your teen’s already heightened senses by inviting several people. It is best for the teen and one or two parents to begin this exercise.

    At the first sign of angst, encourage your teen to practice breathing techniques. Remind your teen beforehand that breathing techniques are silent weapons. Breathing techniques are discreet and inconspicuous to others.

    Encourage your teen to eat slowly, chewing each bite several times. Chewing helps regulate breathing patterns and allows the teen to concentrate on something other than those around them.

    Words of encouragement from the parent must be given in a manner so as not to draw attention to the teen.

    Engage in small-talk. Do not discuss distressing world events or problems at home. This exercise focuses on the issue at hand. Discuss the people around you, their clothing and their mannerisms, or play trivia games. Remove the focus from the teen and invite the world in slowly.

    Keep a Log or Diary of Exercises

    After completing the exercise, have your teen keep a log or diary of the experience. Encourage them to log the date of the excursion, the place, and the anxiety level experienced. Keeping a log helps your child understand his or her anxiety triggers and gauge improvement.

    Slowly, increase the level of anxiety-filled situations. Reward your teen for accomplishing an anxiety-filled task. Rewards do not need to be large or opulent, they can be as simple as choosing a movie to watch on TV, an extra hour of video-games, a sleep-over with a friend, or an activity of their choosing.

    Practice is essential. Remember, relapses are common. The more the teen practices, the less intense the relapse will be. Remind your child that setbacks are normal and will lessen in time. Do not stop venturing out on bigger and more intense social activities as progress indicates.

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    Eliminate Ego From Anxiety Equations

    Anxiety can be an unintentionally selfish act because the teen who suffers from social anxiety has placed emphasis on the “me."

    • “What happens to me if I fail?"
    • “What will they think of me?"
    • “Why can’t I be like everyone else?"
    • “Why do I feel like this?"

    These questions enable your teen to feel self-pity and centralize on their own peril. Point out in a loving manner that everyone suffers from some debilitation, crisis, sorrow, illness, or anxiety – not just them. As a parent, giving into their self-pity reinforces his or her ability to say, “I can’t."

    Involve your child in volunteer opportunities once the anxiety has become manageable. Working with and for others removes ego and allows the teen to be altruistic instead of introspective. Helping others can bolster their self-confidence.

    Go through a list of volunteering activities in your area with your teen. Find one that is simple and fun such as cleaning a park, reading to children at school, handing out programs at a social event, or visiting the elderly in a retirement home.

    At first, anxiety levels will increase. Have your teen utilize their log to manage and gauge the experience. Eventually, the ability to give and care for others removes the “I can’t," and “Why me?" behavior.

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    Join a Support Group

    There are many free support groups for social anxiety and phobias. Ask your teen if you can also participate. The knowledge the two of you will learn is invaluable. Your child will find freedom of expression easier among others with the same disorder. As a parent, engaging with other adults who face the same challenges will help you realize that you are not alone. Many new techniques can be learned in a group setting.

    The idea of a group setting for someone with social anxiety may seem extreme. Placing your child in a group of strangers when that is one of their triggers may appear cruel. However, these groups acknowledge the fear and trepidation of the newcomer. They utilize techniques to help ease any discomfort your child may experience.

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    When Parental Help is Not Enough

    In some cases, a teen may require more intensive treatment to deal with his or her social anxiety. Begin with your family physician; he or she should be able to determine the amount and area of help your child needs.

    In some cases, medication is necessary and beta blockers, antidepressants and benzodiazepines may be administered. However, these medications are not intended for long-term use and should be utilized with therapy.

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    Cognitive Therapy

    Many aspects of cognitive therapy have already been discussed here. When the parent can no longer make a breakthrough, or the child is at a stalemate, a cognitive therapist can take those exercises to higher levels. The desired result is a happy child with a healthy outlook on life.

    Cognitive therapy employs:

    • Relaxation and breathing techniques
    • De-regulating negative thought patterns
    • Re-balancing how the teen views the world
    • Recognition of anxiety triggers and utilizing tools to combat them
    • Desensitization on a higher level than the parent/teen exercises
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    Understanding Social Anxiety

    Fear is a natural occurrence. In some instances, it can protect the individual from entering into a dangerous situation. However, when fear becomes irrational and debilitating, it becomes a phobia. Social phobias or anxiety can lead a teen into seclusion, isolation and emotional torment.

    Everyday tasks become difficult at best. Teens experiencing social anxiety aren’t just “loners"; they are terrified by the thought of being evaluated by others. Enjoyable events and recreational activities become torture to the teen that is constantly aware of his or her actions.

    Judgment by others is amplified by teens who suffer from social anxiety. In turn, they tend to be overly critical of themselves. In severe cases, the feeling of angst and anxiety prevents them from enjoying typical social activities such as going to class, applying for jobs or leaving the house. In these instances, they feel it is easier to sequester oneself than risk embarrassment or judgment from others.

    While most people experience anxiety in one form or another, phobias deter these individuals from entering a situation where they may be at risk of an attack. Social anxiety is not just a case of being shy. It is a paralyzing feeling that the teen may do or say something inappropriate, shake, stammer, pass out or cause embarrassment to themselves or those around them.

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    What Is Social Anxiety?

    Social anxiety is the irrational fear of public arenas and interaction with peers and strangers. Many teens experience isolated social anxieties such as speaking in public or meeting new people. Others become so terrified of being evaluated by others that they isolate themselves.

    A teen suffering with social anxiety may experience feelings of inadequacy, self-deprecation, embarrassment, humiliation, failure and depression.

    The first step to helping your teen with social anxiety is to get a proper diagnosis. Management techniques are in direct correlation to the severity of the disorder. Social anxiety sufferers know that their fear is irrational, but lack the tools to regulate the disorder.

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    Anxiety Triggers

      What triggers specific and generalized social anxiety in teenagers?

      • Public speaking
      • Meeting new people
      • Meeting with authoritative figures
      • Using public restrooms
      • Dining in restaurants
      • Being teased or criticized
      • Taking tests or finals
      • Going to parties or social events
      • Going on a date
      • Using the telephone

      It is not uncommon to be tense before a job interview or giving a speech in front of the class. It is the extent of the fear and the reaction to it that differentiates between normal “jitters" and paralyzing, social anxiety.

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      Red Flags

        What symptoms should parents look for if they suspect their child is suffering from social anxiety?

        • Normal behavior at home, anxiety outside the house
        • Weight loss or gain
        • Depression
        • Lack or excessive sleep
        • Exaggerated fear of going places
        • Excuses for not attending social functions
        • Self-medication in the form of drugs or alcohol
        • Excessive anxiety over future events
        • Claiming illness to avoid social situations
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        Winning the Battle is Rewarding

        Not only are you helping your teen work through a debilitating affliction, you are also creating a solid bond. Working together to combat fear, isolation, and social phobias can draw the parent and teen closer. The parent and teen will experience a great understanding of each other while working through the issues and triggers of social anxiety.

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