Social Anxiety in Teens
Please don’t call on me to say the answer in front of the entire class. My heart is beating too fast to speak.
I dread the first day of school because every teacher makes you go around the room and say your name. I get so nervous that I want to throw up.
There’s no way I can try out for the team. I will do whatever it takes to avoid being the center of attention.
I don’t want to go out to eat with my friends because I don’t like having to order food. What if I mess up and my friends make fun of me?
Can’t I skip the band concert? I don’t want to be on stage because then people will have to look at me.
Those are thoughts swirling around the brain of a teen with social anxiety, like a tornado that’s ravenous for more fuel. Nerves are normal when you audition for a role in the play or have to speak in front of the whole class. But social anxiety takes it to another level.
What is social anxiety?
The most current diagnostic manual defines social anxiety as “marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.” This includes social interactions, being observed, and performing in front of others.
Social anxiety typically develops in early adolescence or after an extremely frustrating or embarrassing situation. Boys and girls are equally impacted, although some evidence suggests that this may run in families. Aside from the obvious complications, social anxiety can impact academics, friendships, mood, and risky behavior such as drug or alcohol use. CHildren with social anxiety are more likely than adults to experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and nausea.
Social anxiety signs and symptoms.
If you ask a teen, “What’s the biggest factor that contributes to your social anxiety?” they will likely say, “I’m afraid that other people are watching and judging me.” They don’t want to be watched, embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected. In essence, they are extremely self-conscious every single moment of the day.
Wondering if your child can relate? Here’s a list of common signs and symptoms of social anxiety in teens:
- Increased heart rate
- Minor trembling
- Difficulty breathing
- Trouble speaking or making eye contact
- Blank mind
- Difficult to be around people, especially strangers
- Speaks softly or mumbles
- Extreme self-consciousness, embarrassment, or awkward social skills
- Avoids social situations
- Overly concerned with negative evaluation
Social anxiety isn’t a mild breeze. It’s a devastating tornado.
You’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s normal. I sometimes feel that way as an adult, too.” But a diagnosis of social anxiety isn’t for the occasional flare of nerves leading up to a sports game or social event. It’s also not someone with a shy personality who has trouble meeting new people or entering unknown situations. Genuine social anxiety is blown out of proportion; it’s like comparing a mild spring breeze to a devastating EF5 tornado.
Let’s pretend that your son is invited to a friend’s co-ed birthday party on Friday. He could be a little nervous as he looks forward to the event–that’s expected. But he shouldn’t be throwing up on Monday because he’s nervous. He shouldn’t be having a panic attack on Wednesday because everyone is talking about the party. And on Thursday, he shouldn’t be imagining every single excuse to avoid the event. After all, a party is supposed to be fun!
Not to mention that your straight-A son failed a quiz on Tuesday and skipped his last two classes on Thursday because he worked himself up into such a tizzy over the party. That’s not a mild case of teenage nerves; that’s a full blown tornado of social anxiety.
Social anxiety impacts everything.
For a teen with social anxiety, it’s all-consuming. She thinks about it every single second: What will they think about my outfit today? Will someone watch me wash my hands in the bathroom? Will my teacher call on me in class? What if the bus driver asks me a question? Will my friends make fun of me because I brought a sandwich for lunch? What will my teacher think about my essay? That’s the perpetual path of anxiety-ridden thoughts.
Rates of social anxiety have only increased over the recent years, and it’s becoming more common to experience social anxiety than to not struggle with it at all.
- In 2018 Pew Research studied 13-17 years olds and found that 29% of teens say they feel tense or nervous about their day while 70% of teens say that anxiety and depression are a major problem among their peers.
- Adolescents who claim a minor sexual identity (such as same-gender attraction) experience more social anxiety than their peers.
- Loneliness and social anxiety are strongly associated. The more lonely a teen, the more likely they are to experience social anxiety, and an adolescent with social anxiety is also more likely to be lonely.
- Increased use of social media leads to higher levels of anxiety in teens. Additionally, addictive social media use triggers social media fatigue, which further elevates anxiety.
- Physical, verbal, or psychological bullying from peers may cause social anxiety in adolescents.
- Social anxiety spikes and social skills drop the most during unstructured social contexts.
We are broken people who live in a broken world. Satan lures us away toward isolation, but God invites us to abundant freedom in His love and grace. Social anxiety silently lulls your teen toward isolation, but we invite your child back into healthy social relationships.
Yes, we will traverse mountains of fear. But yes, the reward will be absolutely wonderful! A life in community, where you’re fully known and loved, is what awaits your teen–a hopeful future where your child knows their identity and can walk through life with confidence in who they are. That’s our desire for your teen!
Research indicates that treatment for social anxiety boosts social skills and the ability to perform in front of other people, plus it increases hope and a willingness to make mistakes, especially if treatment includes cognitive behavior therapy, family therapy and social skills training.
If your adolescent is struggling with social anxiety, let’s partner together. We have hope that your teen can live a life free from the burdens of social anxiety.
Serena Trimmier, MS, LPC, EMDR
Licensed Professional Counselor