In this article we will think about social anxiety in teenagers in the current world.
I will explore effective treatment options and give you some helpful ideas about how your teenager can help themselves too.
I have raised three daughters and I write as a parent as well as a counsellor.
Social Anxiety in Teens: The Origins
Humans are wired to connect with others.
It’s vital for our well-being.
From an evolutionary perspective, being part of a group increased our ancestors’ chances of survival. Today, that deep-rooted need for social connection remains essential for both our mental and physical health.
Social anxiety in teens often originates from a fear of negative judgement. This fear can disrupt their ability to form meaningful relationships, a key aspect of their developmental process.
When teens struggle to manage this anxiety, it can lead to isolation and emotional distress.
Lacking social confidence or the skills to navigate social settings has a real impact. Teens may pull away from activities and relationships that are crucial for their growth and happiness.
In extreme cases, teen social anxiety can hinder their ability to thrive and fulfill their potential.
Social Anxiety in Teens: What to Look Out For as a Parent
- Have you noticed that your teenager struggles in social settings or avoids them?
- Have they always been ‘shy’ and found it difficult to mix and have social interactions with others?
- Perhaps teen social anxiety has developed gradually in adolescence and most recently, in response to world events?
A sudden withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed could be a sign of social anxiety in teenagers. Changes in behaviour, like avoiding eye contact or replying on you to speak for them, may also indicate social anxiety.
Another common indicator of teen social anxiety is the use of “props” to cope in social situations. Props can allow a socially anxious teen to dip in and out of social interaction if they are finding it too much.
For example, they may wear noise cancelling headphones or use an electronic device. But watch out for your teenager becoming too heavily dependent on such props, or completely avoiding social interaction by zoning out.
Watch for physical symptoms of teen social anxiety. They can include shaky hands, a trembling voice, or excessive sweating in social situations. These signs might be easier to spot than emotional cues.
Keep an eye on their academic performance as well. Social anxiety can affect concentration and participation in class, which may lead to a decline in grades.
Listen to how your teenager talks about social events. Phrases like “I can’t handle this” or “I’ll embarrass myself” may signal teen social anxiety. These negative self-statements can sometimes serve as barriers to social engagement.
Awareness is the first step. Knowing what signs to look for enables you to help your socially anxious teenager. With the right interventions, your teen can build the social confidence needed to feel much more comfortable in social interactions.
Teen Social Anxiety Settings
Here are some common areas where you might see social anxiety in teenagers:
- Performance situations such as speaking in public or giving a presentation.
- Meeting new people or strangers.
- Going to parties, gatherings or new situations.
- Starting romantic relationships.
- Eating or drinking in front of others.
- If they have physical problems that are limiting or difficult to share with.
Social Anxiety in Teenagers: 5 Key Things You Should Know
1. What is Social Anxiety in Teenagers?
We all get a little anxious in social situations sometimes. It’s normal for us to care about what others think about us, and that affects our social performance. But if social anxiety is significantly impairing your teenager’s everyday life, then they may have something called social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder is also referred to as social phobia. It is characterised by a persistent or intense fear of being judged, rejected, embarrassed or scrutinised by others.
The anxiety experienced can be really intense. It can impact every aspect of a teenager’s life. The pandemic has interrupted some teenagers’ social development.
Social Anxiety Disorder in Adolescents Statistics
In my clinic I have noticed that cases of social anxiety have risen sharply over the last two to three years.
The American National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 9.1% of U.S. adolescents have social anxiety disorder, and around 1.3% have severe impairment. The figure is likely to be similar across other developed countries.
2. Teen Social Anxiety and Its Connection With Egocentrism
As they develop and mature, young people often centre their thoughts on themselves. This is not a criticism of them. It’s natural. They’re exploring where they fit into the world.
Some teenagers become self-conscious about their appearance and who they are. Many experience uncertainty about their gender or sexual identity. This is normal, but it can often feel as though they are always being judged by their peers and society in general.
Building self-confidence and acceptance of who they are as an individual will help when dealing with social situations.
3. Signs of Social Anxiety in Teenagers
If your teenager has social anxiety they may…
Avoid social events or interactions all together.
- Withdraw from extracurricular activities.
- Find it difficult to make friends and maintain relationships.
- Feel self-conscious or inhibited.
- Experience stomach aches or other physical symptoms associated with anxiety such as:
- Sweating or shaking
- A rapid heart beat
- Tense muscles
- Have difficulty starting conversations with others.
- Have a fear of/or experiencing embarrassment.
- Engage in self sabotage – these are behaviours or thought patterns that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do.
- Show negative self judgment and criticism.
- Display a build-up of anxiety symptoms or feelings of worry leading up to a social event.
- Have panic attacks.
If your child is displaying some or all of these symptoms, there is a strong possibility they have social anxiety disorder.
4. Teen Social Anxiety and the Importance of Social Skills
The development of social skills starts in early childhood, often within the family (with adults, siblings or cousins). It often continues at baby and toddler groups, nursery and pre-school.
Some young children find socialising really easy and appear to be ‘naturals’, whereas others need encouragement, reassurance and more intense nurturing.
Good social skills lead to social confidence and ease. They provide teenagers with a sense of connection, purpose and support. They can also open up opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them.
Social and friendship skills can be taught either informally or formally.
Your child can work on them at home, at school and through extra-curricular activities such as orchestra, sports, drama clubs, youth clubs and volunteer groups.
Your teenager’s high school may have support systems in place for students who lack social skills and confidence, such as lunchtime skills groups.
Autism and Social Anxiety in Teens
Research studies and my clinical experience both confirm that social anxiety is much more common in autistic teens than in neurotypical teenagers. The prevalence of social anxiety in autistic teenagers is high (between 29.2% and 57%).
To autistic teens, social interactions can feel daunting and overwhelming. Autistic brains thrive on predictability, yet socialising can be incredibly unpredictable and this can trigger anxiety for your autistic teen.
Many autistic teens struggle to identify and respond appropriately to the social cues of others, particularly in larger groups. Add to this the sensory overwhelm that can accompany some social settings, and it’s unsurprising that autistic teens have a high incidence of social anxiety.
The most important thing to remember is that autistic teens should never be forced or pressured to socialise in a “neurotypical way”.
For example, they shouldn’t be forced to make eye contact as this can be too stressful, but there are alternatives such as looking at the speaker’s forehead.
Autistic teenagers with social anxiety will need to schedule in down time/alone time to recover and decompress from the strain of social interaction.
5. Teen Social Anxiety Disorder is Treatable
Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when the intensity of the fear impacts on day-to-day functioning and well-being.
The good news is that there is a range of effective treatment options for social anxiety in teenagers.
When teenagers experience mental health disorders such as social anxiety, mental health professionals can offer a structured and scaffolded framework of support with practical steps and goals.
Teen Social Anxiety: Effective Treatments
A treatment plan for social anxiety disorder is usually based on the severity and frequency of symptoms.
Social anxiety can have a co-occur with other psychiatric disorders like generalised anxiety disorder, depression and agoraphobia.
Your family doctor will help you consider whether your teenager needs a referral to a mental health professional for additional support with their social anxiety.
From here, a plan of treatment can be formulated.
Talking Therapy For Social Anxiety in Teens: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common therapeutic approach to treating social anxiety disorder.
CBT is usually short-term therapy which is goal oriented.
CBT helps socially anxious teenagers to understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
It helps them challenge negative and unhelpful thinking patterns that lead to the anxious behaviours.
Teen Social Anxiety Treatment: Exposure-Based Therapy
Exposure therapy is part of CBT but can be used by itself.
The individual gradually faces the scenarios they fear (while keeping them safe). Anxious teenagers learn that the feelings won’t hurt them and that they do go away.
The goal is to sit with anxiety until it subsides. Then, the same step is repeated over and over, until no anxiety is felt.
Exposure therapy must be a carefully paced and graded approach.
This is called Systematic Desensitisation.
Through repeated exposures, the fear or worry is challenged and skills are developed to help take control of the anxious feelings.
It is vital that the child controls the pace of the therapy and feels in control.
Medication for Teen Social Anxiety
Anti-depressant medication is sometimes prescribed to teenagers with social anxiety disorder especially if it is heavily impacting their day-to-day functioning. Medication is best combined with therapy.
The most common type of medication presrcibed is called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
SSRIs help the brain to slow the re-absorption of serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates levels of anxiety and overall mood.
How to Help A Teenager With Social Anxiety
There are several strategies you can use at home to help your teenager with social anxiety:
- Manage energy levels. If social situations are exhausting or overwhelming for you, take a rest before or after social interactions. For example if you want to go to a party, don’t plan anything big before the party and ensure you have a rest day after the party. For more detailed guidance on managing energy levels take a look at tip number 4 in this article about preventing meltdowns.
- Muscle relaxation and breathing exercises can help when feeling anxious or panicky. Or, try these less conventional calming activities.
- Make small lifestyle changes to improve wellbeing. For example, eating regular and nutritionally balanced meals, exercising a little each day, making time for self-care.
- Encourage your socially anxious teenager to write down their feelings and worries in a journal, and help them reflect and gently challenge their worries.
- Look out for support groups.
- Try activities that are calming and help to keep anxiety levels down. For example, listening to music, drawing, getting out in nature, yoga.
Social Anxiety in Teens: What Are “Safety Behaviours”?
In an effort to reduce their anxiety, teenagers often use ‘safety behaviours’.
Safety behaviours can lessen your teenager’s social anxiety symptoms in the immediate short term, but long term they may make the cycle of social anxiety worse.
Here are some safety behaviour examples:
- Avoiding eye contact, pull hair over the face.
- Focusing on phone or another object instead of participating in conversation.
- Speaking very softly so that your voice is barely heard (in an attempt to minimise the risk of criticism).
- Avoiding your eating in front of others.
- Checking appearance in the mirror repeatedly.
- Avoiding social interactions unless accompanied by a particular “safe” person.
It’s important to help your teen to be aware of safety behaviours, so that as their social confidence improves over time, they can gradually reduce them.
Teen Social Anxiety: The Link With Alcohol and Drug Use
In order to cope with social anxiety some young people turn to alcohol or drugs to help them feel relaxed or less inhibited.
Keep an eye out for this and seek professional help if necessary.
How to Help a Teenager With Social Anxiety: Key Principles
Here are the key principles which you should focus on to help your teenager overcome social anxiety disorder.
- Current relationships: Help them put time and energy into getting the best out of the relationships they have. What does your child need from each of relationship and what can they give? This article about values and mental health will help you support your child to identify what values they hold and what values they look for in others.
- Small Steps: If your child doesn’t feel confident being in large groups and meeting new people, think about taking part in a small group or one-on-one activity instead. Explore a variety of activities and see if there are local groups or clubs they could join.
- Effective communication: Build confidence in your child’s interaction and friendship skills. Gently work on skills your teen doesn’t feel confident in, one by one.
Social Anxiety in Teens: Summary and Conclusions
In this article we have looked at the reasons why teens often experience social anxiety and insights into recognizing signs of social anxiety in teenagers, such as withdrawal from activities and physical symptoms.
We have explored the most effective treatment options for teen social anxiety, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure-based therapy, and looked at how you can help a teenager with social anxiety at home. I hope you have found this a helpful resource for your socially anxious teen.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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