Tips for Parenting Teens with Social Anxiety

It’s normal for tweens, teens or young adults to feel nervous in some social situations. For example, going on a date or giving a presentation at school may cause that feeling of butterflies in their stomach. Comfort levels in different social situations vary, depending on an individual’s personality traits and life experiences. Some people are naturally reserved and others are more outgoing. A shy teen may be reluctant to enter some social situations or take longer to warm up to new friends. Most adolescents feel shy at least occasionally, but can eventually adjust and enjoy participating in social activities with their peers.

In contrast to ordinary nervousness, social anxiety disorder includes fear, anxiety and avoidance that interfere with relationships, daily routines, work, school or other activities. Everyday interactions cause anxiety, self-consciousness and embarrassment because the teen fears being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected by others. These fears result in teens avoiding new experiences or limiting their interactions with people.

Social anxiety has become a growing problem among young people, especially in the aftermath of months of isolation created by the pandemic. As the country has opened back up, some young people, even ones previously considered outgoing, are encountering newfound insecurities, a fear of public spaces and a reluctance to hang out with friends. The long timeframe without socializing has weakened these social skills and negatively impacted the mental health of an entire generation.

If you believe your teen or young adult is struggling with social anxiety, here are some tips to help:

Remind them they are not alone. Teens with social anxiety often feel isolated and think they are the only ones suffering from these fears. The reality is that 10% of teens have diagnosed social anxiety and many more go undiagnosed or struggle with social fears. Let your teen know that other teens with social anxiety have conquered their fears, and you believe that they can too.

Teach them relaxation techniques. Social fears create stress, so it’s important to help your teen identify relaxation techniques that work for them. It might be a calming activity, such as reading or drawing or meditation, or it might be active movement, such as yoga or running or dancing. One of the best relaxation techniques that will help your teen in a moment of stress is simple breathing exercises. Stress causes our breath to speed up, which puts our bodies on high alert and can lead to lightheadedness. Slowing our breathing down actually tricks our brain into thinking things are calm. Taking slow, deep breaths can reduce the anxiety your teen is feeling wherever they are.  

Discuss self-talk. Help your teenager learn to check their interior monologue. Adolescents often believe negative thoughts about themselves, others or situations, without much evidence supporting those thoughts. Let your teen know that there is a lot of power in the words we speak. If we constantly tell ourselves that we aren’t good in social situations, it will become true. Point out positive traits your teen has that you know others will like and remind them of past experiences where they have done well in a social situation. While it might be hard for your teen to fight the urge to beat themselves up, you can champion them and help them develop an alternate self-image through positive reinforcement.

Encourage them to face their fears. The more we avoid something we fear, the more afraid we become. Alternatively, the more we expose ourselves to a situation, the more routine it will become. As a result, it’s not a good idea to overprotect or shelter a teen with social anxiety. However, we need to introduce situations in small, positive ways. Gradual exposure to new social experiences will help your teen build social skills and feel more confident in their abilities. For example, if your teen is afraid to join a new art class, consider asking the teacher if you and your teen can observe one class together first. Then you might ask if your teen can attend half a class with you waiting outside. As your teen gains exposure, and nothing horrible happens, your teen will feel more confident and able to handle the situation themselves.

Keep a journal. Encourage your teen to keep track of the things that are causing them stress and what activities seem to help them feel better. Journaling can help your teen identify patterns that aren’t obvious during an anxious experience.

Problem solve. Ask your teen which social situations or interactions are the most challenging and what triggers their anxiety. Then brainstorm together different ways to overcome these challenges. Remember that brainstorming is the process of throwing out all sorts of random and crazy ideas with no judgment. Once you have finished brainstorming, let your teen choose a couple of realistic strategies they think might alleviate their symptoms. This process of examining a problem, brainstorming ideas, and implementing a solution is an excellent life skill for teens to learn and also provides a feeling of control that can reduce anxiety.

Model social behavior. Allowing your teenager to see you experience nervousness about a situation and then confront that situation anyway, is one of your most powerful tools in helping them through their social challenges. Talk with them about your feelings before and after the situation and explain the changes that took place as you confronted your fears.

Avoid negative labels. It can be frustrating to have a teen who feels afraid of “normal” activities, but don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Never criticize, blame, or judge your teen, which will only reinforce their anxiety. Instead, focus on positive progress and on practicing techniques that will improve the situation.

Seek help. Sometimes social anxiety is too big a beast to slay on our own. Encourage your teen to join a support group for people with anxiety or meet with a therapist who can listen without judgment. A therapist can help them process their feelings in a safe space and give them tools to cope with anxiety. Learning coping skills from a professional can be one of the most helpful ways to get anxiety under control.

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