You might suspect social anxiety disorder if your child is inordinately fearful of criticism. Kids with the disorder often express their anxiety by asking, “What if I do something stupid?” or “What if I say the wrong thing?” Young children sometimes throw tantrums and cry when confronted with a situation that terrifies them, behavior that can be misunderstood as oppositional. The fear they experience may trigger physical symptoms such as shaking, sweating, and shortness of breath, and significantly interfere with daily life.
There are two main types of social anxiety disorder. The first focuses on performance—things like speaking in public, ordering in restaurants, shopping in stores. The second is interactional, which pertains to social situations even when you’re not in the spotlight. Children with interactional social anxiety may fear going to school, eating in public, and using public restrooms. Most people with interactional social anxiety also experience performance social anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder responds well to therapy. The goal of treatment is behavior modification, and children beginning a concurrent program of behavioral therapy and medication usually don’t take medicine for long.
Behavioral: Your child’s clinician will likely start cognitive behavioral therapy to work on improving the child’s social and coping skills during anxiety-provoking situations. CBT teaches kids that they are in control of their anxiety and unwanted behaviors. Through therapy they will learn to take overcome their fear and change anxious thought patterns. Exposure therapy, which requires gradual, carefully controlled exposure to a feared situation, is also very successful in reducing anxiety.
Pharmacological: Medications can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, which may make behavioral therapy more effective for some children. SSRIs, or selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, have proven effective at managing some symptoms of social anxiety disorder. Medications called beta blockers may also be prescribed to curb the fear response and reduce physical symptoms of anxiety, such as palpitations and sweating.
Parents often wait to seek professional help because they assume a child is just being shy or will outgrow her fear. Unfortunately, social anxiety disorder rarely disappears if left untreated, and it often leads to social isolation, chronic anxiety and depression.
Do drugs help?
Yes, SSRIs can be used to successfully combat anxiety and make cognitive-behavioral therapy more effective. Beta-blockers may also be prescribed to treat the physical symptoms of fear, such as palpitations and nausea.
What causes it?
Experts are unsure about the root causes of social anxiety disorder, but it seems to have both genetic and environmental causes. People with social anxiety disorder often have heightened fear responses.
Should I avoid situations that stress my child?
Avoiding stressful situations will often make your child’s anxiety and nervous anticipation even worse. Anxiety and stress are a normal part of life, and your child will benefit from learning how to manage her response.
Has my child been traumatized?
Children who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder may be more susceptible to social anxiety disorder. However, there is no direct relationship to trauma, and many diagnosed will have never experienced a seriously disturbing event.