Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Is Your Child a Shy Child?

Dear Cathi,

I’m worried about my 14 year old daughter, Megan.  Megan has always been a shy child.  Teachers have always said that she doesn’t participate in classroom discussions and is extremely reluctant to do any kind of oral presentation in class. When she gets invited to parties, she seems to find excuses not to attend. She has a couple of good friends that she’s had since elementary school.  When these girls aren’t available, Megan stays by herself at home.  When I try to encourage her to meet other girls or get out and be more social, she gets very defensive and angry with me.  I’m hoping that as she matures she’ll outgrow her shyness.  What can I do to help her?

Sincerely,

Mary S.

Dear Mary,

I’m concerned that Megan may be more than just “shy”.  She may be suffering from social anxiety disorder (social phobia).  Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health problem in children.  And social anxiety disorder (SAD) is the most common anxiety disorder in both teenagers and adults.  Frequently the warning signs of SAD go undetected because they are viewed as extreme shyness rather than a true disorder that requires treatment.

Some indications to look out for are:

  • extreme dis-comfort at being the center of attention
  • avoidance of initiating conversations or phone calls
  • reluctance to invite friends to get together
  • difficulty ordering food in restaurants
  • soft tone of voice and/or mumbling
  • appearing isolated in a group setting
  • extreme self-consciousness
  • fear of speaking in public, reading aloud, or being called on in class

Many teens feel reluctant to be the center of attention or to speak in public, especially teenagers who are by nature a little more shy than some of their peers.  And most teenagers find it stressful to ask someone out on a date or join a group of peers they don’t know.  But, most teenagers find a way to deal with these feelings and manage to do these things when they need to.

Teenagers with social anxiety disorder have such intense fears that they avoid stressful situations whenever possible.  And, just like with other phobias, this fear is out of proportion to the actual danger that’s present.  As people learn to avoid stressful social situations, their anxiety temporarily decreases.  Over time though, this may lead to social isolation which negatively impacts the quality of a youngster’s life and may even compromise school performance and attendance.

It’s very important that social anxiety be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.  It is tempting for family members to collude with their child’s avoidance behavior.  For instance, when a family attends a social activity, they may be persuaded into leaving the socially anxious teenager at home.  Unfortunately, once this behavior begins, it can become a pattern that is hard to break.  Family and friends can be helpful by encouraging the teen to confront social situations.  Repeated exposure to the phobic situation and remaining in it until the anxious symptoms subside is part of the necessary healing process.

Effective treatments are available to treat this common disorder. Talk to Megan’s guidance counselor to see how her school can offer support and guidance.  Check out the ADAA website for more information on anxiety at www.adaa.org.

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