Your child struggles with friendships. Parents sometimes wonder if it is just a phase, or if their child is developing social anxiety. Understanding “normal” friend behavior can be challenging in the “tween” years between eight and twelve, as a child approaches adolescence.
Why Social Anxiety is a Serious Problem
Social anxiety often begins to develop in childhood, with symptoms appearing during elementary years or younger. By age 13, about 7% of adolescents have social anxiety serious enough to warrant treatment. Social anxiety exists along a continuum, but as symptoms intensify, the impact can be debilitating and severely limiting.
Although effective treatment using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is available, tweens with social anxiety usually do not receive treatment for 10 to 15 years! The reasons for this delay are complex but include adult uncertainty. Should parents give a tween more time to adjust and mature? What would indicate the need for immediate action? Research suggests that parents tend to underestimate their child’s anxiety. Teachers are somewhat better at detecting anxiety, but children and adolescents with moderate levels of anxiety are often good students and well behaved, so their distress is easily missed.
Once social anxiety develops it rarely resolves on its own and continues to worsen. By adolescence and young adulthood, more psychological problems also may develop, such as depression or substance abuse. Physical problems associated with chronic stress may appear.
Untreated social anxiety takes a heavy toll in adulthood and is very likely to become a chronic, life-limiting problem. Loneliness and stalled social development reduce quality of life. Individuals with social anxiety often have difficulty meeting educational and career goals and ultimately some become financially dependent on their family. Their lives continue to shrink as they have fewer and fewer social connections.
Just One Friend Can Make a Difference
The need for a friend is universal, and acceptance by peers is critical to a child’s development. When entering a new school, such as middle school, many children will briefly worry that no one will talk to them, they will not know anyone, or it will be hard to make friends. If the tween is already struggling with friendships, his self-confidence can erode if any of those worries come true.
How Social Anxiety Interferes with Making Friends
When a tween is prone to social anxiety, a negative cycle begins when the tween believes she has been rejected or feels unfavorably judged by others. She may remember a time when peers seemed unfriendly or were rude, and then expects that all situations will be similar.
She may be nervous and start sweating, or her heart rate goes up, or her stomach flutters. These physical symptoms are uncomfortable and cause the tween to sense vague danger.
This apprehension leads to thoughts about more things going wrong, which increases anxiety and sets off another round of uncomfortable physical symptoms. A vicious cycle is established. At that point, the tween’s attention is divided. He becomes focused on how he thinks he looks to others, and how others are reacting to him. Then he is so busy worrying about what might happen that his actual behavior is probably not that friendly. Meantime, he is distracted by his internal thoughts, and so he forgets to smile or his response to someone’s remark seems disinterested. As a result, this lack of warmth by the nervous teen means that peers are not likely to be as welcoming as they would be — if only your tween was not so tense! This experience then forms a new negative memory.
Being embarrassed, your tween may decide to withdraw and avoid those peers or that activity in the future. In the short run this strategy reduces distress quickly, and so a new habit of avoidance can develop (escaping when uncomfortable). Since children and adolescents will be faced with many new situations as they develop, your tween may gain a lot of practice in avoiding social situations unless someone intervenes.
Not everyone becomes anxious in the same social situations, and anxiety triggers vary by the individual. Many children and adolescents with social anxiety greatly fear unstructured social interactions at school (such as lunch, recess, waiting for the bus). Ask teachers or the school counselor to check how your tween is behaving at recess or lunch, and whether your child is even participating. Parents may take note if their child stands slightly apart while waiting for the bus in the morning, or if he looks socially disconnected when picked up by car in the afternoon. A tween can easily avoid others by simply looking at her cell phone.
Individuals with social anxiety are masterful at finding ways to avoid uncomfortable situations. Children can find a way to play alone at recess. Teachers are rarely in the lunchroom. Adults may not notice the tween sitting at the edge of a group of classmates, looking unhappy and not talking. Tweens and adolescents have more freedom to move about the school unsupervised. They have been known to spend all of lunchtime in the library or nurse’s office. Tweens can avoid getting a tardy slip by hiding in the bathroom or a stairwell for an entire class period. Gathering observations from the campus counselor or school psychologist can be enlightening.
Social skills require practice and observing others. Tweens get better at handling social interactions by being present for regular day-to-day social interactions, with all the joys, thrills, conflicts and embarrassing awkward moments of these years. For example, when a tween gets to practice handling friendly teasing by a close friend, he is better able to discern when other peers are just kidding around or when a peer is being intentionally mean (bullying).
In the long run, avoidant behavior backfires. Because he is not present, he cannot acquire new positive social interactions that would build confidence. Without few social successes, negative experiences take on more importance. If she is in a social situation, she can watch and learn from others. If she is absent, she will miss discovering that everyone makes social mistakes and how others handle getting embarrassed. Avoiders miss the chance to practice key social skills at critical times when faltering is expected. Consider that the awkward hesitant efforts of an anxious tween to join a conversation is somewhat normal in sixth grade. The same behavior would be unexpected and less tolerated in a 24-year-old.
The tween years are crucial for engaging in school activities where they can practice being part of a group. Social anxiety often prevents tweens from pursuing fun extracurricular activities that they would enjoy and that they could share with possible friends. Any emerging friendships are cut short because the child withdraws.
EVEN ONE POSITIVE FRIENDSHIP CAN PROTECT AGAINST SOCIAL ANXIETY
When to Take Action
You may have noticed that your child does not ask to spend time with other children. Perhaps no one invites him to play. Parent intervention is needed promptly. If your child complains he is lonely or people do not like him, then the problem needs attention. The situation has probably been bothering him for some time and signals the need for parent help right away.
Help Your Tween Gain New Social Experiences that are Positive
Tweens need some independence, but they also may need parents to discreetly set up social opportunities. One or two positive experiences can interfere with ideas such as “I don’t have friends, or nobody likes me.”
- Make sure your child or adolescent is not over-scheduled so there is time to experience unstructured social time.
- Early in elementary school, arrange for play dates. Even in middle school, invite a child to your home regularly. Involve your child in non-competitive activities (easier to join in).
- Set up fun activities with tweens. Below are links to suggestions, and also more information about the challenges involved in making friends at this age:
- Exciting things to do with kids ages 9-12.
- Help your child make friends in middle school.
- Help your tween make friends and keep them.
- Common challenges to making and keeping friends in middle school.
- Friendship tips for middle school boys.
- Kids who need a little help to make friends.
Build Social Thinking Skills
Individuals who are prone to social anxiety often develop some rigid and inaccurate ideas about the social world. For example, he may begin to think that people are judging him, when actually they do not even notice him. If your child mentions negative ideas like this, ask him to give more details. Do not debate but find out what he saw or heard that gave him those ideas. Avoid telling your child what to think but help him consider other ways to think about the situation. Basically, teach your child to take the perspective of another. Help her learn to imagine what others might be thinking or feeling, or their intentions. This will shift the conversation from the child’s negative thoughts about herself to being curious about what the other person may be experiencing.
- Teach perspective-taking deliberately. This article for teachers (adapt for home) provides several good examples for teaching this skill to different ages.
- Talk aloud as you solve your own minor daily social conflicts. Do this frequently. Selectively and purposefully think out loud while you cope with feelings and solve a problem. This teaching strategy can be powerful. Indirectly, when you child overhears you, she may discover how to apply positive thinking to challenging situations.
- Read together. Look for stories about social dilemmas and how people solve them. Find books about courage and overcoming fears. These stories will give your child new and different ways to think about problems and their solutions.
- Share real-life stories. Find stories about people with social anxiety who used courage to overcome their fears. One example is Ricky Williams: A Story of Social Anxiety Disorder.
- Build hope and positive thinking by watching movies or TV shows together with positive and prosocial messages. We all need a break from negativity.
- Analyze sitcoms. With your child, watch movies or TV shows about teen relationships. Then afterwards take a few minutes to help your child develop her critical thinking skills. Ask her to think back about the misunderstandings in the show and explain how those happened. Find out what she thinks the teenager could have done differently to avoid the problems. Click here.
- Learn more about anxiety. Click here for more ways parents may be able to help with anxiety at home.
Keep Them Safe
Positive friendships are vital to your child’s healthy development. As a parent you can intervene to keep them on the right path.
If you suspect your child is a victim of bullying, take immediate action. She may need the help of adults at school but may also need your help to speak up. She may need to build skills to avoid being a victim. Click here for strategies for building skills to ward off bullying. Here is a resource to help with cyberbullying.
As your tween attempts to fit in, he will likely be exposed to new ways of behaving. Some of these will be great, but some may be harmful. Social anxiety and substance abuse are strongly associated, starting in the adolescent years. Avoid being a helicopter parent but be a parent who is always “in the way.” Become your child’s handy excuse by periodically showing up unexpectedly at informal tween gatherings. Your tween will have an immediate, peer-acceptable reason for declining to imbibe! For more ideas, see the work of Bill Oliver (below).
When to Get Help
Your child may be developing severe social anxiety if:
- She seems excessively self-conscious in social situations.
- He worries about being embarrassed or humiliated in front of peers.
- He avoids opportunities for social interaction, or backs out last minute even when he initially wanted to go.
- She is much more distressed than is warranted for the situation.
When excessive worry persists for at least six months, seek help from a mental health professional.
Social anxiety in children and adolescents may co-occur with other problems. Consider whether your child may also have a second problem that makes the social anxiety worse. Examples include another type of anxiety, panic, depression, OCD, ADHD, autism, communication or language delays or a learning disability. If you suspect your child has any of these difficulties, arrange for a thorough psychological evaluation soon.
Celeste Conlon, PH.D.
NSAC – Houston / Sugaland
Hofmann, S. and DiBartolo, P.M. (Eds.) 2014. Social Anxiety: Clinical, Developmental, and Social Perspectives, Third Edition. Academic Press. San Diego, California.
Lagattuta KH, Sayfan L, and Bamford C (2012). Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of experimental child psychology, 113 (2), 211-32 PMID:22727673.
Oliver, Bill. Raising Teens in a Toxic World: A Survival Guide for Parents: Lessons Learned, Volume 1 (Unabridged audiobook). Available through Audible. May 2013