Social Anxiety In Teens: Answering A Parent's Question
Question: I am a single mother raising a 16-year-old daughter. She has always been a very good kid, never one to act out much, and even as a teen she is well behaved. But what worries me is that she is very shy. This has caused her to avoid making new friends, trying out for sports teams, or really just getting out into the world. When she was younger I didn’t think much about it, but she is just two years away from graduating from high school and I don’t see her being able to move out and live independently if she remains this insecure. Now I’m worried.
It sounds as though your daughter suffers with social anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 10% of adolescents struggle with this fear.
You are right to be concerned. As you point out, this anxiety has robbed your daughter of some important experiences that would have helped prepare her to confidently launch off into adulthood.
It’s interesting to note that researchers have found that good social skills (which includes mastering social anxiety) when measured in kindergarten predict success in early adulthood.
Not to worry. It’s not too late to help your teen build the confidence and skills she needs to successfully and confidently transition into adulthood. Let me point to some research that back up my optimism (aside from my experience in helping many teens make this shift from anxiety to confidence). In a recent study investigators looked at the difference between socially anxious children (ages 7 to 14 years) that successfully learned the skills needed to conquer anxiety, and compared that group to anxious children who had not learned those coping skills.
This is what is called a longitudinal study. That is, the researchers measured the childrens' progress over the course of many years. What they found when they followed up, years after the study began, (the children were now young adults, between the age of 18 and 32 years) is that the youngsters who learned how to cope with social anxiety were significantly less likely to struggle as adults with substance abuse, phobias, panic attacks and anxiety in general.
Take away lesson? It’s terrific that you are wanting to take steps to help your daughter, and it’s not too late for her to learn new skills that have the power to change her life trajectory.
So, you're wondering how to go about the task of helping your little girl. Glad you asked. Let’s look at several steps you can take.
ONE You can begin by sharing your concerns with her. Be careful to frame your remarks in a way that it does not come across as criticism, just concern. The whole point of this conversation is to get her on board with the hard work that will follow.
Once she accepts the idea that the next two years will be devoted to building her social confidence, you can move on to pick a series of goals. Your daughter needs to help select these goals so she feels some ownership of the process.
Help her pick some goals that focus on social interaction with peers. This might include getting involved in the high school Yearbook Club, trying out for a sport, auditioning for theater, or joining one of the clubs on campus.
Those clubs/sports where she has a friend/acquaintance will be the best targets for this goal. Having a friendly familiar face will be reassuring.
Once she has joined a sports team or club she will find it relatively easy to befriend new teens. After all, they have something in common, and they need to work together as part of the club or team to which they both belong.
Do not forget to celebrate her successes along the way. If, for example, she signs up for the school Yearbook Club, be sure to congratulate her. Let her know that you are proud that she has taken this first step. Then, when she attends her first meeting at the Yearbook Club, you will also want to tell her how terrific she is for pushing aside her fears.
TWO Encourage her to have a ‘sleep over’ with one of her current friends (at your home at first so she is more comfortable). After a couple of successful sleepovers, have her invite that same friend and a newer acquaintance to the home for another sleepover. This will stretch her socially (because she does not know the new girl that well), while providing the support of a well-known friend.
THREE Have her obtain a part time job. Preferably in the service sector. Will she be fearful of taking this step? Yes, but there is nothing like having to interact with the public to quickly develop a sense of confidence in her ability to deal with various personalities.
FOUR If you belong to a church have her join the youth group. This will provide more practice with interacting with peers. Moreover, many youth groups go on overnight camping trips (chaperoned by adults). Getting away from the security of her familiar surroundings and relying on peers for support during that time is a great confidence booster.
FIVE Role model with her various social situations and coach her on how she can respond. Yes, I know, she is a teen and may think this is the dumbest thing in the world. Even so, try your best to engage her. Many children with social anxiety simply have not learned to master the social skills that allow one to comfortably interact with others.
The general idea that I outlined above is for you to gradually increase the amount of time your daughter spends in situations that she has avoided. That way she slowly develops the confidence and skills needed to face the challenges that await her in a few short years as a young adult.
If this seems overwhelming, consider seeking the help of a therapist who has experience working with anxious teens. I think you would also find it helpful to look at the ‘Anxiety’ section of the Essential Tools page on my website. You’ll find links to websites, and books that will be very helpful.
Good luck, and let me know how this turns out.