Helping Children and Youth with Social Anxiety
Information for Parents and Caregivers
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What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder (sometimes called social phobia) is a problem for children and youth that makes them very anxious or worried in many everyday situations. Studies show that about 1 in every 20 youth have this disorder. Children and youth with social anxiety can get very worried about:
- Meeting new people
- Going somewhere new
- Speaking in public
- Talking in class
- Eating or drinking in front of others
- Using public toilets when others are nearby
- Making mistakes in front of others
What is the difference between shyness
and Social Anxiety Disorder?
Many of us feel shy at one time or another. And so
value shyness more than others. Feeling shy at times isn’t a
problem. In fact, having ‘just enough’ shyness in
situations keeps us from doing things that might be
for ourselves or others. But social anxiety is more than feeling shy
sometimes. It is shyness that gets in the way of enjoying school,
making friends and getting involved in fun activities. Children and
youth with social anxiety try to avoid (or will endure with distress)
social situations, like:
- Starting to talk with others who are not close friends or family
- Going to a party or dance
- Talking on the phone
- Talking to people they don’t know
- Expressing opinions
- Talking with people in authority (like a teacher or
Bullies may pick on children and youth with social
anxiety, because they might seem like an easy target to a bully.
What causes social anxiety?
Many things can contribute to social anxiety, like:
Some children are just born with a tendency or temperament to be more shy and anxious. A child has a greater chance
of having anxiety (including social anxiety) if family members have had troubles with anxiety.
Children or youth may be more shy or fearful in social situations if they:
- Don’t get the chance to learn how to handle social
situations (for example, if parents protect them to
o much from
facing these situations).
- Have had negative experiences in the past, like being bullied, teased, embarrassed or rejected.
- Have conflicts or stresses with friends or classmates
- Are not doing well in school or feeling too much pressure to do well in school
It can be hard for adults to see things from a child or teen’s point of view. Things that might not seem like a big deal
to an adult can be overwhelming to a child or youth
. And some children are just more sensitive to stress.
What should we do if we think our child has social
Start by taking your child to a doctor (like your family doctor or pediatrician) and describe your child’s worries and
the situations that are causing anxiety. Your doctor can check for any medical problems. Your doctor
can also help
to link with psychologists or social workers.
Treatments for social anxiety at a glance...
Social anxiety is often treated with Cognitive (thinking) Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This kind of counseling helps
children and youth to:
- Learn to think in more positive ways, which gradually changes the way they feel about things
- Gradually get more comfortable in situations they a
re afraid of
- Learn and practice social skills
- Solve problems
Counselors can use these methods to help your
child. You can learn to use them with your child
- Cognitive Restructuring
Many children and youth with social anxiety feel
that they are
not good at anything and have given up trying. Counselors can
help children learn to think in different ways an
d to see
themselves and others in a more positive way.
This involves gradually exposing children and youth
to what they fear, until they are no longer afraid
Counselors will do this step by step, starting with
things that are easy and working up to things that
harder. For example, if your child is afraid to talk to teachers, the plan might be to:
- Just look at the
teacher or say hello
- Speak to the teacher
when no one else is
- Speak to the teacher
with a friend nearby
- Speak to teacher in
- Role plays
These give your child a chance to practice new ways
of handling scary
situations. For example, if your child finds it ha
rd to talk to other children,
you or a counselor can pretend to be a child and your child can practice
- Social skills training
Because children with social anxiety avoid social situations, they don’t
get the same chance to learn how to make friends, ask for help, or invite
someone to play. A counselor can teach your child
the ‘rules’ and steps
to connect with others in a positive way.
- Problem solving
A counselor can work with your child to figure out
what problems are
getting in her way. The counselor will help your child to solve problems
- Brainstorming possible solutions
- Thinking about the pros and cons of each solution
- Picking the best solution
- Planning how to make the solution happen
Medications can be helpful for some children and youth. They must be prescribed by a doctor, like your
family doctor or
a psychiatrist. They are usually used only when:
- Counseling is not helping
- The anxiety is so severe that counseling is not possible (if your child is too afraid to talk with the
Helping your anxious child or teen
Understanding and supporting a child or teen who is
anxious isn’t easy. Here’s how you can help:
- Don’t play the ‘blame game’.
Don’t blame yourself or your child for the social
anxiety problems, it
won’t help. Instead, focus your energy on trying t
o make things better. Ask yourself, “What can I do
right now to help my child?”
- Let your child face his fears. It is natural to want to protect children and youth from things that worry
them. And it can be hard work helping your child work through these feelings. But avoiding situation
that make your child anxious can make things worse,
because your child misses chances to pick up the
skills they need to make and keep friends.
- All feelings are OK.
It is natural for parents to want to change their child’s feelings when a child is
worried or sad. But saying things like, “Don’t be
sad-there’s nothing to be sad about!” tells your ch
that his feelings are wrong. This can cause your child to keep feelings inside. Encourage your child
tell you how he feels when you have some privacy.
- If at first you don’t succeed...keep trying!
Children and youth with anxiety usually try to avoid things
that challenge and stress them. When your child struggles in some situations:
- Talk with her about what made it hard
- Help your child to come up with ideas that might help next time
- Be sympathetic
- Give hope by reminding them that there will be more
chances in the future to
handle things well
Building social skills, one step at a time
Even though it may be scary for your child or teen,
he needs to be with others to learn skills for making and keeping
friends. You may find it helpful to:
- Plan activities with other parents and children.
But don’t do too much
at once. Too many people at once or too many group
activities could be
very stressful for your child.
- Challenge your child or teen, but not all at once.
Start with something
easy, like watching a movie or playing a video game
with another child or
teen when you are close by. If this works well, tr
y something that requires
more talking, like a board game or cards. Having something ‘to do’ helps
to take some of the pressure off of having to talk.
Work up to activities with
more children or ones that don’t have many rules, like ‘pretend’ games, or
just ‘hanging out’.
- Try not to take over.
Because anxious children find it hard to be social, parents sometimes
step in and
direct things a little too much. This takes away chances for children to learn how to handle their social
lives. Help your child to plan and to solve problems by asking
questions and gently making suggestions.
Where to find help in Eastern Ontario
- In a crisis?
Child, Youth and Family Crisis L
e for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1
- Looking for mental health help? eMentalHealth
is a bilingual directory of mental health services
and resources for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and Canada.
- Renfrew County: Phoenix Centre for Children, Youth and Families,
with offices in Renfrew and Pembroke.
613-735-2374 or toll-free 1-800-465-1870
- Leeds and Grenville County:
Child and Youth Wellness Centre, with offices in Brockville, Elgin, Gananoque
and Prescott. 613-498-4844
- Lanark County:
Open Doors for Lanark Children and Youth, with offices in Carleton Place,
Smiths Falls and Perth. 613-283-8260
- To find a Psychologist anywhere in Ontario:
College of Psychologists of Ontario, 1-800-489-838
Where to find
- Youth Services Bureau,
for ages 12-20, 613-562-3004
- Family Service Centre of Ottawa,
- Catholic Family Services,
- Jewish Family Services,
- The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre
referral), 613-737-7600 ext. 2496. For mor
e information on our programs, CHEO
- To find a Psychologist in Ottawa:
Call the Ottawa Academy of Psychology referral ser
Listing many, but not all, Ottawa psychologists
Want more information?
- The Offord Centre, information about mental health conditions
- CHEO, growing information section on mental health and health
Books for Parents
- School Phobia, Panic Attacks and Anxiety in Children
by Marianna Csoti, 2003
- The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children
and Helping Them Heal
by Paul Foxman, 2004
- Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries
by Tamar E. Chansky, 2004
- Your Anxious Child: Raising a Healthy Child in a Frightening World
by Mary Ann Shaw, 2003
Books for Children and Youth
- The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming Your Fear
Edition), by Martin Antony, 2008
For more books: see the excellent Mood Problems Reading List from the Offord Centre