What is social anxiety in children?
Social anxiety is worry about or fear of situations that involve interacting with other people.
For example, children with social anxiety worry about what will happen in social situations. They’re often scared of what others will think of them. They might also fear being embarrassed, being separated from their parents or carers, or getting in trouble.
If your child has social anxiety, you might notice that they:
- have difficulty meeting other children or joining in groups
- have a limited number of friends
- avoid social situations where they might be the focus of attention or stand out from others – for example, asking or answering questions in class.
Social anxiety can have some physical signs too, including nausea, stomach aches, blushing and trembling.
The signs of social anxiety can be easy to miss. Children who have social anxiety are often quiet and obedient in preschool or school. They might not talk about their fears or worries.
Social anxiety typically affects older children and teenagers.
Helping children with social anxiety
You can best support your child when you understand their anxious feelings. A good way to do this is by thinking about your child’s anxiety signs and the situations in which they seem to happen. You could even keep a record of these signs and situations to see whether there’s a pattern.
When you have a better understanding of your child’s social anxiety, there are many things you can do to help your child.
Before preschool, school or other social situations
- Prepare your child for situations that make them feel worried or fearful. Act out the situation at home, and practise things they can do to make these situations easier.
- Encourage your child to do some ‘detective thinking’ if they’re old enough. For example, your child might think that everyone will laugh at them if they answer a question in class. You could ask your child, ‘How do you know they’ll laugh?’
- Tell your child about times you’ve felt anxious in social situations and how you’ve faced your fears. This will help your child understand that it’s OK to talk about anxious feelings.
- Tell your child’s preschool or school about your child’s anxiety. Also let them know what you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people can give your child consistent support.
At preschool or school or in other social situations
- Gently encourage your child to join in social situations, do things in front of other people, and start new activities. This helps your child learn to handle worrying situations.
- Avoid speaking for your child.
- If your child does something that normally makes them anxious – for example, talking on the phone – acknowledge their courage with plenty of praise. If other people are around, praise your child quietly and make a big deal when you’re alone. This helps to foster your child’s self-esteem.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’. If other people comment on your child’s behaviour in social situations, you could say something like ‘Actually, Kai’s quite outgoing around people he knows well’.
- No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising your child or being negative about their difficulty in social situations.
- If your child has an anxious reaction to a situation, don’t force them to stay in the situation. Try the situation again another time with more preparation.
Using the stepladder approach to help with social anxiety
The stepladder approach is a gentle behaviour technique that can help children with anxiety, including social anxiety. It involves tackling little things before children face the really scary things.
For example, if your child has trouble talking to new people, they could start by saying ‘goodbye’ to a friend they’ve met a few times, building up to saying ‘hello’ to someone they’ve just met, and eventually having conversations with other children at school.
Professional help for social anxiety in children
If you’re worried about your child’s anxiety and feel that it’s affecting their enjoyment of life, consider seeking professional help.
You can get professional help from many sources, including:
- your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician, who can refer you to an appropriate mental health practitioner
- your local children’s health centre or community health centre
- a specialist anxiety clinic (available in most states)
- your local mental health service.
There are also online programs to help children manage anxiety – for example, The BRAVE Program.
If your child is aged 5 years or older, they can talk with a counsellor at Kids Helpline by calling 1800 551 800 or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.
Financial support for children with social anxiety
To get these rebates, your child will need a Mental Health Treatment Plan from a GP (this covers the services your child needs and the goals of the treatment) or a referral from a psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Social anxiety disorder
Some children and teenagers develop social anxiety disorder. This is when a child’s social anxiety has gone on for more than 6 months and significantly affects the child’s life.
Children with social anxiety disorder might avoid many situations that involve interacting with other people. These situations include talking on the phone, joining teams or clubs, and answering questions in class. If you feel your child might have social anxiety disorder, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
Social anxiety disorder can be diagnosed in children as young as 4 years.
Shyness or social anxiety?
Shy behaviour is normal in children. And some children are naturally shy. This means they’re slow to warm up or uncomfortable in social situations.
But extreme shyness can interfere with a child’s everyday activities, and this can be a sign of social anxiety disorder. If this sounds like your child, it’s a good idea to see a professional like your GP or paediatrician or a psychologist.