Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as Social Phobia, is a huge challenge for teenagers. It leaves them feeling frustrated, left out, confused, overwhelmed and above all else, very anxious. For those of you who don’t have this struggle, it’s a hard problem to understand. You don’t know why your teen feels nervous around friends. You can’t figure out the reason your teenager doesn’t bring others around the house, or go to parties, or even like to attend Friday night football games.
Here’s what’s happening with social anxiety: Your teenager said something at lunch to other friends. They laughed and thought it was funny. Normally a kid would continue the conversation and keep the jokes flowing. Your teenage son with social phobia wonders whether the joke was funny, or whether his peers are laughing at him. The situation is replayed in his mind over and over again. There is distress over what others were thinking. Your son is feeling evaluated by his peers. He is constantly searching for clues to what others think of him. Later, his friends Jordan and Brandon walk away from the group at lunch talking and laughing. Your son is completely convinced they are laughing at him. He wonders whether they are laughing at him for the stupid joke he told two hours ago.
One of the things worked on in therapy is exploring alternative reasons for people’s behavior. If a teen can realize other people’s bad moods aren’t usually about them, they start to feel better. In our hypothetical situation above, Jordan and Brandon have a hundred reasons they might have walked away laughing. Once teens realize it’s not all about them, some of their angst begins to relent.
Social Anxiety Disorder can become such an intense struggle that teenagers will refuse to go to school. They’ve convinced themselves they are disliked. They have placed such an emphasis on being loved by peers that they cannot stand to go to places where there is an abundance of teenagers. It is a catastrophic calamity if someone gives a dirty look. While most teenagers will just roll their eyes and move on, a teen with social anxiety disorder just can’t let these things go.
One of the worst nightmares for a teen with social phobia is public speaking. I had a client whose social anxiety was so overwhelming for him that he took an F in a class he could have passed because he would not give the final presentation. He prepared the whole thing but was completely overcome by panic when it was time to present. He actually ran out of the classroom. Then he was so embarrassed by having run out of the class that he ditched that class period for the final two weeks of school. He had to retake the class in summer school.
Social Anxiety Disorder truly causes a impediment in a teenager’s ability to function well in life. He or she must get treatment for this disorder. You can try to force your child into social situations, but often a therapist is needed when the social anxiety has progressed. Your teenager will do whatever it takes to avoid social scrutiny. Sometimes their world becomes very small as a result. Getting help for this very real, very upsetting disorder is vitally important.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT