Social anxiety is a struggle for teens. They are often worried about what their friends think, and get nervous about social interactions. It causes stress and depressed moods. Learning to negotiate middle school and high school social politics is difficult for the most confident of adolescents. For the socially anxious teen, it’s nearly impossible. This is the teenager who desperately wants friends and to be part of things, but is too scared to make it happen.
True social anxiety is something different than just feeling nervous in social situations. This is when a person cannot bring themselves to talk readily in front of peers. People who suffer from social anxiety often do not have many friends. They fear saying the wrong thing each time they talk. When they have had a conversation, it is replayed in their minds over and over to look for mistakes. Other people’s reactions to conversation are misconstrued. A person might laugh at something funny that was said, but someone with social anxiety will believe the laughter is directed at them. Dating is impossible. Often someone with social anxiety will speak inaudibly when they do talk. Social situations with peers are terrifying. Developmentally this is problematic.
Fortunately there is help for social anxiety. Through the process of counseling someone suffering from social anxiety can learn to manage their nervous feelings. As they have successful interactions with peers, they are able to gain a little bit of confidence. Slowly they learn that others are indeed interested in what they have to say. The advent of social media has made overcoming social anxiety a bit easier. It is a safer place to start than in direct conversation. This allows the person suffering from social anxiety to think carefully before communicating with a peer. When they get a response, it is a positively reinforcing experience.
If you think your teen is suffering from social anxiety, please get them help. Future success in relationships and their career depends on their ability to function in social settings. A lot of what is learned in middle and high school is how to navigate a social world. In fact, this is one of the most important lessons taken from school. It is something every person who joins the workplace needs. Not everyone will remember details about The Revolutionary War, or The Pythagorean Theorem, but they do use communication skills the rest of their life.
One thing you can do at home to help a socially anxious teen is to have them start answering the phone whenever it rings. A lot of us no longer have home phones, but you can still have your teen answer your phone. Even those brief interactions increase confidence. When you’re at the grocery store, send your socially anxious teen up to an employee to ask where something is. Make them order for the family at a restaurant. Gently, gently push your teen to do more talking. When they get the small talk down with strangers, start the discussion about how to apply it to their peers.
Dealing with social anxiety is a huge challenge. Be patient and love your teenager through what can feel like crushing fear. Stay positive and remind them that you believe they can overcome their struggles.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT