Social Anxiety in Teens

by Amber Goodloe, LPC

For many, September means the start of a new school year, and I’ve been reflecting on what might be a helpful topic in supporting parents of teens during this next school year.  I have spent the last 18 years working with adolescents around the world, and a common but growing trend I’ve seen is teens struggling with Social Anxiety.  This is especially true after COVID lockdowns and the normal situations that give teens opportunities to build social skills were taken away, and for many it has felt overwhelming “re-entering” social settings.  Take “Jenny” who is a 15y/o girl that has lived in 3 different countries and recently began attending a boarding school.  She struggles to connect to girls in her dorm, feels like no one likes her, and is doing poorly in school because she doesn’t understand the system and expectations but she’s too afraid to ask the teachers for help.  Her dorm parents report that she spends most of her time in her room, and when they try to speak to her she mumbles and won’t look at them.

As you read that you may be thinking, “How is that any difference from just being shy or more introverted?”  I, personally, am an extremely introverted person and was an incredibly shy child, but I have never suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder.  Many times, even as an adult, attending a new church or starting a new job produces high levels of discomfort, and maybe even anxiety in me, but my brain knows this is something I can do and will survive – it will just be uncomfortable at the beginning.  For those who struggle with Social Anxiety though, their brains react in a much more intense manner.  “While it is common to experience some anxiety in new social situations, individuals with social anxiety disorder feel overwhelming self-consciousness, distress, and fear of judgement in day-to-day social interactions.”[1] Another source said, “Social anxiety is a fear reaction to something that isn’t actually dangerous — but the body and mind react as if the danger is real. This is a response called ‘fight or flight.’ It’s caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare you to fight or make a quick getaway.”[2]  If you are afraid of heights or spiders or snakes, you know your brain and body’s reaction to these things – it goes into “hyper-protective” mode and its only goal is to get you away and safe.  This is the same way the brain reacts to social situations for someone with Social Anxiety.  It interprets the experience as unsafe and is telling the person to get out as quickly as possible.  While this mechanism in our brain can be lifesaving when it causes us to jump out of the way of a car speeding towards us, it is less helpful when it inhibits us from building relationships and engaging socially.   So, what are some signs your teen might be struggling with Social Anxiety?

  • Thoughts: Extremely self-critical, negative self-image, always thinking worst case scenario, constant fears of embarrassment, obsessively worrying about what others may think
  • Feelings (emotional and physical): Anxiety, worry, shame, anger, stomach pain, difficulty breathing, sweating, dizziness, tense muscles
  • Avoidance of: Initiating conversations, attending parties or group gatherings, speaking up in class, speaking to personnel at stores and restaurants, calling a stranger on the phone, speaking with authority figures, eating in public, and others

So, what might “cause” a teen to struggle with Social Anxiety?  As we all know, adolescence is a season that naturally induces a sense of anxiety in most people, as they ask questions like “What do my friends think of me?  Are my clothes ok? Did I sound really stupid just now?”  It’s a season of trying to create and establish an identity, and most teens experience a strong fear of rejection by peers.  According to research, the factors that might lead a teen to go beyond a normal degree of discomfort and develop Social Anxiety includes:

  • A teen who is naturally shy, withdrawn, or risk-averse
  • Any noticeable physical difference (large scar, physical deformity, etc)
  • Speech issues
  • Being the target of bullying
  • Parenting style – parents who are overprotective may “protect” children from learning necessary social skills and confidence in scary or difficult situations

In addition to these, TCKs also commonly have the following experiences which can increase a tendency towards Social Anxiety:

  • Frequent moves which require learning a new culture (school, country, etc.)
  • Pressure to perform well in school and in life – this can be family expectations and school pressure
  • Taking trips around passport countries to raise support and needing to maintain a “good image” for the family
  • Being the only non-local student in a local school, and therefore standing out

To be clear, none of these experiences directly cause a teen to develop Social Anxiety, but rather are factors that can contribute to this.  And if your teen is struggling in this area, it can lead to them missing out on important social activities, having difficulties in school if they’re too anxious to participate, and low self-esteem which inhibits their ability to develop and grow into a healthy adult.  So, if you suspect your teen is struggling with Social Anxiety, or if they’re telling you they are, what can you as a parent do to support them? 

To start, it’s important to not minimize or downplay what your child or teen might be experiencing.  Social Anxiety is a real thing and, as mentioned earlier, their brain interprets situations as potentially life-threatening which will not be soothed or changed by telling them it’s “not a big deal” or “just get over it.”  (How well does that go over with you if your spouse or friend says that to you?).  If you are someone who has never experienced anxiety, it can be really difficult to understand it and in turn you may minimize it.  Therefore, as with all relationships, the first step is to pay attention and to listen to their lived experience.  Be interested and engaged in what’s happening in their lives.  Talk with them about what anxiety feels like to them and help them explore and work to differentiate between a normal amount of anxiety, and something that goes beyond this.  Talk to them about what happens in their bodies when they face certain social situations and what they’ve tried to calm and soothe their fears.  Also pay attention to how much they’re avoiding situations and relying on others to speak for them – do they avoid ordering their own food, going places on their own, or attending school or class events?  *Note – be careful to not “diagnose” your introverted child as socially anxious just because they’re not outgoing and prefer small groups and time to themselves. 

Second, it’s helpful to remember that Social Anxiety is something that can be treated and decreased over time if we are intentional in addressing it.  This can look like helping teens develop relaxation and coping tools such as drawing, breathing, or journaling; gently challenging their beliefs about themselves and others; and learning how to break the cycle of avoidance of scary situations.  They will need to be supported in this journey, but also challenged to step outside of their comfort zone and learn they will be ok and can develop skills to manage these anxieties. If they struggle ordering food, start by asking them to order only their drink.  If they avoid class gatherings, help them explore who could be a support and maybe could go to the event together so they aren’t alone, but give permission to leave early if needed.  The goal is to help them slowly develop confidence and support them in the process.   

Another aspect that is important to address is their view of self.  Since low self-esteem often goes with social anxiety, it is necessary to help them develop confidence in themselves and see their value no matter what others may think or say.  And this does not come from a parent simply saying, “Don’t worry about others, you’re amazing,” (though it is crucial parents are verbally affirming their kids’ worth and value separate from their actions); it involves helping teens identify where their negative self-image comes from and dismantling these lies and notice experiences that negate them.

And in this process, your teen may need more support than you can give.  In these cases, it’s helpful to look for a mentor or a counselor who can come alongside them in learning how to understand and manage their Social Anxiety, and in some scenarios medication might be a consideration to support them.  As always, if Olive Tree can be a support to you or your teen, please reach out to us.  We’d love to help you and your teen in a journey to healing and living with confidence. 



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