What is Social Anxiety in Childhood?
Social anxiety in childhood is intense and ongoing worry about social and performance situations.
This intense worry leads to avoidance of these situations or significant distress. Overall, 3-6% of children experience this anxiety, and the rate is a bit higher for teenagers .
As a parent, you have no idea why your child or teen does not want to go to the party. It is possible that your child cannot even articulate this fear of embarrassment, of saying or doing the wrong thing. Maybe your teenager feels fearful of making new friends, having to make small talk, being in a new situation, or performing like public speaking. Everyday activities like speaking in class or ordering food in a restaurant may feel terrifying.
Children with a genetic predisposition to generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, negative self-image, or poor social skills may struggle with a fear of social or performance situations. Your child or teen could have been rejected in the past or had a perceived failure in a performance or social setting, and now they are afraid of being around peers or making that mistake again.
When these social worries, or Social Phobias, develop in children, it is important to address them. Feelings of worry, fear, anxiety, or panic could worsen as your child enters the teen years. Thus, it is crucial to notice these symptoms early and work to treat any underlying challenges.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety in Children
- Avoidance: Deliberately avoiding social situations or performance events
- Excessive worry: Constantly worrying about not knowing what to do in a social situation
- Quiet: Acting painfully quiet or shy around other people
- Petering out early: Struggling to complete a day of school
- Going home: Calling you to pick them up from school
- In nurse’s office: Going to the nurse before giving the presentation but not actually seeming sick
- Negative perceptions: Feeling afraid others do not like them
- Incessant questions: Asking questions about seemingly obvious social rules
- Freezing up: Suddenly freezes during a class recitation of the Declaration of Independence
- Crying on school days: Crying for an hour after you dropped them at preschool or kindergarten
Types of Anxiety in Childhood
General anxiety is uncontrollable worry that is excessive or out of proportion to the situation. Everyone worries about several things in life. Some level of anxiety is adaptive for people, even for children.
In the case of children and teens with significant social anxiety, being around other children, leaving mom or dad, not understanding the social cues of other children, or excessive worry about speaking in front of the class could be bothering your child.
Social anxiety might develop as your child reaches middle school or high school. A combination of underlying anxiety symptoms, puberty, negative self-image, and increased social demands can contribute to social anxiety.
If these anxiety symptoms go untreated, more significant panic symptoms may develop, such as difficulty breathing, racing heartbeat, and sweating palms. When children have extreme anxiety or panic, the motivation to avoid social situations is even greater. Symptoms can become harder to relieve. Depression can also develop when anxiety has been persistent and is not getting better.
Anxiety can cause a child to freeze up, forget what to say, or do something regrettable. Your child may wish to avoid a party or social gathering because, at first, staying away from the stressor alleviated their anxiety. Avoiding the party was reinforcing. Your child may avoid more social settings because it felt good to stay home sick from school or avoid the party. Maybe it felt good because of the removal of social demands. Or, perhaps, it is because they feel safe at home with their parents.
A teenager who does not have coping strategies to deal with negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity is more likely to become anxious. New activities, new situations, or unfamiliar experiences may trigger more anxiety than something your teen feels more comfortable with, something that is more predictable.
Causes of Social Anxiety in Childhood
Low self-esteem: If your child has Social Anxiety, low self-esteem could underlie these feelings. This term means that your child has a low sense of their self-worth compared to their peers. Some children do not recognize what they are good at, why they are loveable, and who they are. Professional help from a therapist and opening communication in your family to discuss strengths and challenges could help.
Bullying, peer rejection, or trauma: Sometimes, anxieties develop due to a history of peer rejection, bullying, or trauma. These negative experiences may lead a child or teen to expect the worst, value themselves less, and feel unable to trust and feel safe.
Genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression: Other kids may be more inclined toward a negative self-appraisal due to a chemical or natural tendency toward anxiety or depression. If these run in the family, it will be important to support an open and safe space for communication in your home and be ready to reach out to a mental health professional if your child needs help.
Developmental delay: Children may have difficulty developing healthy self-esteem due to immaturity or delayed development.
Poor sense of self: Identity formation is a process that develops throughout childhood and adolescence. Some children struggle to integrate aspects of their personalities into a complete sense of self and accept themselves “warts and all.” Instead, they see every little mistake, failure, or personality flaw as unforgivable, and they are unable to develop a healthy identity.
All of these issues can contribute to social anxiety in children and teenagers.
What to Do About Social Anxiety
Building confidence in your child’s areas of strength can help improve self-esteem. For example, a child who is not a great athlete may excel in creativity and find a niche in writing plays or designing sets.
Helping your child find their niche and feel successful from a young age is crucial. This may mean joining a club, trying out a sport, or getting involved in a hobby with peers. By addressing social anxiety symptoms early, your child will likely struggle less later.
Encourage your child to go to the event. Do not allow your child to simply avoid anxiety-producing situations. Anxiety tends to grow when such potentially ‘scary’ events are averted.
When a child is allowed to simply ‘skip it’ the situation is perceived as much worse than it actually is. Rather than having the chance to experience it and realize that it wasn’t so scary, the child is left wondering how terrible it would have been. Further, the child feels a sense of failure, believing that they ‘chickened out’ rather than braved through the situation.
Action steps to help your young child with social anxiety
If your young child is struggling to separate from you or is excessively shy, you can take some action steps.
- Look into groups. Help your child find places to be around other children. Start with something simple like inviting over neighbor kids to play in the backyard. Look for classes at the rec center, preschool, music class, social groups, ‘mother’s morning out,’ or a gym class.
- Show your child that you can leave and then come back. If your child tends to hide behind your leg or stick to you like glue at social events, try to venture away for short periods. Work to just get away for a few minutes, leaving your child with a trusted loved one. Extend this time gently.
- Remember: success breeds success. The more positive social interactions the child has, the more they will want to engage in these events in the future.
- Be an advocate at your child’s school for anti-bully and community-building activities. Schools that emphasize team building, creating a caring culture, and honoring people’s individual differences create better communities that support all children.
Action steps to help your teen with social anxiety
If your teenager has social anxiety, consider these steps.
- Choose specific, small group activities in an area of interest: These groups can help your teen build confidence with just a few peers in a low-performance situation.
- Arrive early: It can be hard to enter a chaotic or busy social setting. Being there first to help set up or find a friend to sit with can make it easier to be in a social situation.
- Prepare in advance for what to expect: Anxiety can be relieved by feeling prepared. Who will be there? What is the activity going to be? What do I have to do? Help your child understand more about the upcoming event in advance.
- Practice, practice: Think about what to say and what topics your teen can talk about with friends. If your teen has a performance, encourage them to practice their part, build confidence, and work in small steps. Build on successes with bigger steps. For example, they could start by singing on stage with a large ensemble instead of starting with a solo.
- Seek help: If social anxiety is a struggle for your teenager, consider a therapist. Talk to your primary care doctor about medication. Know the options you have and the support that is out there.
When to Seek Help for Social Anxiety
See a psychologist for more extreme symptoms like panic and avoidance of social settings. If this change is sudden, make sure your child has not experienced something traumatic. Consult with a psychiatrist to see if medication is needed to ease panic symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is generally considered the best treatment for anxiety. This evidence-based approach helps your child learn the skills and strategies to manage feelings of stress, deal with anxiety, and face previously anxiety-provoking situations.
Further Resources on Social Anxiety in Childhood
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat anxiety using clinical approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy for teens or play therapy for a young child
- School psychologist: to treat anxiety in the school setting; provide a social group; look at ways to adjust the setting to lessen anxiety
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to provide a full assessment and to look at symptoms in a mental health context
Similar Conditions to Social Anxiety in Childhood
- General anxiety: social anxiety may be related to general feelings of anxiety that occur in many contexts; not necessarily just performance
- Self-esteem: social anxiety may be related to nervousness about being judged by peers or negatively evaluating oneself; memories of past failures in similar social situations
- Social problems: social anxiety may be related to social deficits, trouble reading other people, fitting in, or making friends
Book Resources for Social Anxiety
Books for clinicians and parents
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482.
 Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ
 Foxman (2003). Recognizing anxiety in children and helping them heal.
Books for kids
 Meiners, Cheri J. (2003). When I Feel Afraid (Learning to Get Along).
 Freeland Ph.D., Claire A. B., and Toner Ph.D., Jacqueline B. (2016). What to Do When You Feel Too Shy: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety.
 Green, Andi (2011). Don’t Feed The WorryBug.
 Culbert, Timothy & Kajander, Rebecca. (2007). Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body®).
 Hitchcock, C. A., Chavira, D. A., & Stein, M. B. (2009). Recent findings in social phobia among children and adolescents. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences, 46(1), 34–44.
Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me.
Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety.
Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine.
Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book.
Books for kids on perfectionism
McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm.