Social anxiety in kids

By Jerome Schultz, PhD

At a glance

  • Social anxiety is a type of anxiety that gets triggered when kids or adults are asked to think about or take part in social situations.

  • Learning and thinking differences can play a big role in social anxiety.

  • There are many things parents and teachers can do to help kids with social anxiety.

Twelve-year-old Sarah says she wants to be friends with two kids in her class, but she “freezes” every time they ask her to join them.

Eight-year-old Roberto hasn’t gone near the basketball court since last month, when one of the boys yelled at him, “I can’t believe you missed that shot! It was so easy!”

Fifteen-year-old Greer loves to build things and can spend hours in her room making mechanical toys. She’s been invited to join the Robotics Club but absolutely refuses to go.

Do any of these kids sound like your child? If so, it’s not uncommon. Many children and adults worry excessively about social interactions. This is especially true during adolescence.

Social anxiety isn’t limited to avoiding fun-sounding activities. It can also play a big role in kids refusing to go to school. Read more about social anxiety, how learning and thinking differences can contribute to it, and what you can do to help.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder is a specific type of anxiety that gets triggered when kids or adults are asked to think about or take part in social situations. It’s much more than shyness. It’s an intense fear that can make it hard to build friendships and enjoy other people’s company.

Kids with this type of anxiety worry that they’ll be seen badly in social situations. They may only feel comfortable with people they know very well.

Social anxiety is a lot like separation anxiety, but for older kids and adults. Very young kids fear being away from their caregivers because they need them to survive. Social anxiety is similar. Something unsafe might happen if I leave home. If I talk to that kid, it will turn out bad.

Social anxiety can snowball, too. Say your child is anxious about going to a classmate’s birthday party. You might think it’s OK to let your child skip it this time. But if you do, your child will miss out on a chance to develop social skills needed the next time there’s a party.

Kids who worry about making social mistakes may avoid going places where they could learn social rules or practice interacting with others. And then lack of practice makes them even more likely to want to avoid a social situation.

The connection with learning and thinking differences

Kids with learning and thinking differences can struggle with unstructured social interaction. They may get confused by the words people are using. They may misread body language or other subtle social cues.

As a result, they may get anxious and withdraw from the situation. It’s social anxiety, but it’s caused or made worse by the underlying learning or thinking differences. Here are a few examples:

  • ADHD: A child may blurt out something inappropriate. A negative reaction from classmates may lead that child to start avoiding group conversations.
  • Dyslexia: A child may try to avoid reading aloud in class by asking to go to the bathroom or to the school nurse. Separation from class can reinforce the fear of reading aloud. The longer kids with reading issues go without effective reading interventions, the more likely they are to develop social anxiety.

Each time kids are in a situation where they don’t believe they’ll be successful, their brain interprets that as a threat and says, Let’s get out of here. Their fear centers activate. The part of their brain that controls their executive functions shuts down.

How to help your child with social anxiety

If you’re cooking and the frying pan catches fire, you take it off the stove. With kids, you want to get them away from the crisis because you want to turn off the fear center. But you need to do this in a limited way so kids don’t learn that not doing something is the best way to feel less anxious.

Here are a few tips on how to help kids deal with social anxiety.

Don’t let your child hit the ejector button. If your child is feeling very anxious in a social situation, help your child step aside and take a few minutes to think about strategies. But don’t agree to go home. Leaving won’t help your child deal with the situation next time. Even agreeing to sit on the sideline and watch is better than leaving.

Think about less anxious ways to get your child “on stage.” For example, if you know your child gets anxious about speaking in class, ask the teacher to send a question home so your child can rehearse the answer.

For oral reports, ask the teacher if your child can make a video at home or maybe perform a puppet play from behind a curtain. (These kinds of options are becoming more common as more teachers use Universal Design for Learning to try to increase student engagement.)

Develop social “anchors.” When going to a party or a new karate class, try to carpool so your child can walk in with a friend. For school projects, ask the teacher to pair your child with a friendly peer who can field questions about things like what to bring or wear. Having a buddy can help make events feel less threatening.

Make a plan for lunchtime and recess. During unstructured times, kids get to make up the rules. Your child may have a lot of trouble reading the environment. Work with teachers and school staff to help your child deal with social anxiety during these less structured times of the day. Don’t leave this to chance. Without a plan, your child will likely have more failures than successes.

Make a plan for headaches and stomachaches. Keep in mind that physical complaints may be your child’s way to avoid something scary. Ask specifics so you can help your child come up with strategies. For example, you might ask, “What would it take to help you feel better right now?”

Set some firm boundaries. For example, “You can’t stay home from school unless you have a fever.” Or “Maybe a break from this would help you feel better. You can have up to 10 minutes for a break, but then you’ll need to get back to doing this.” It can also help to have your child rate the difficulty level of the task. This can help you know if the resistance is because your child thinks it’s too hard.

Be a detective. It’s not reasonable to expect your child to answer broad questions like “What are you so worried about?” Try to get specific. What’s the worst thing that could happen at the party? Is there anyone in particular you’re worried about seeing? Yes, those girls are laughing, but how can you be sure they’re laughing at you? Why don’t you walk by and just listen to see if you’re right. If you are, maybe that’s something I can help you with.

Asking questions can help you understand how your child views the demands of the social interaction. The more you understand about your child’s social concerns, the more you can help your child develop a plan for success.

Think about getting a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy can often help kids “trade in” negative thoughts for ones that help reduce social anxiety.

Learn more about when and how to jump in with social problems at school. Download an anxiety log to look for patterns in your child’s behavior and find strategies to help.

Key takeaways

  • Social anxiety can play a big role in kids refusing to go to school or join in during play.

  • It’s important to make a plan to help kids during unstructured times, like lunchtime and recess.

  • The more you understand the fear behind your child’s social concerns, the more you can help your child develop a plan for success.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.