Social Anxiety in Teens Can be Stopped: How to Treat It
Social anxiety (formerly referred to as social phobia) was once considered an uncommon disorder. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health National Comorbidity Survey Replication indicates an estimated 7.1% of U.S Adults had social anxiety in the past year. More than 12% will experience social anxiety at some point in their lives. A similar survey regarding adolescent mental health shows over 9% of adolescents between ages 13 and 18 had a social anxiety disorder, and more than 1% had a severe impairment from their disorder. Although social anxiety disorder is more common than many believe, many parents and children are not familiar with the signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder in adolescents and teens.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition characterized by an intense fear of social situations. Circumstances such as talking with people at work or school, being in social situations or performing in a public setting, or eating in front of others can lead to overwhelming fear and anxiety. The symptoms of social anxiety disorder can impact your teen at work, an afterschool job, and many other day-to-day activities. For some teens, a social anxiety disorder can make it challenging to make and keep friends, foster relationships, participate in school sports or other extracurricular activities that involve crowds or groups of people.
Teens with social anxiety disorder fear being humiliated or rejected. The fear and anxiety they experience in social situations are often so overwhelming they cannot control it. In some instances, they will decisively avoid situations where they believe they may have to do something that could cause embarrassment. They may worry about situations for weeks or months before they happen.
Social anxiety disorder generally begins during childhood in children who are very shy. Without treatment, a social anxiety disorder can last for many years, well into adulthood, inhibiting one’s ability to meet or achieve their full potential.
Recognizing Social Anxiety Disorder
The signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder can vary by age and from person to person. How social anxiety disorder presents in pre-school-aged children may be vastly different than in adults. For parents, it can be challenging to know if your teen’s behavior reflects social anxiety disorder or something else. Suppose you consistently see potential signs of social anxiety disorder. In that case, it is important to reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health professional at Hillcrest for further evaluation.
In school-aged children, a social anxiety disorder can present in school, daycare, or other social settings. For example, you may notice (or a teacher may mention) your child is afraid to read aloud or answer questions in front of their classmates. They may avoid talking to other kids, speaking to adults, having friends over, going to birthday parties, or refuse to participate in activities at school. A young child with a social anxiety disorder is also more likely than teens or adults to present with physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea, or headaches.
In teens, symptoms of social anxiety are often behavioral. Their temperament, behavior with peers, and behavior at home or in school may change. You may notice your teen is abnormally quiet, withdrawn, overly concerned about negative feedback, develops nervous habits, or is hesitant to talk or make eye contact. At school, your teen may avoid classmates or raising their hand in class, sit alone at lunch, is afraid to ask for help, refuses to go to school or skips school, or feels uncomfortable in front of the class. Social anxiety disorder in teens can lead to difficulties with relationships. A teen with a social anxiety disorder may have few friends, avoid groups or “get-togethers,” avoid conversations, mumble or speak softly, or always appear to avoid any attention fixed on them.
If left untreated, a social anxiety disorder in adolescents or teens can lead to an elevated risk of other mental health disorders in adulthood. Common mental health conditions co-occurring with or following social anxiety disorder are depression, disordered eating, and substance abuse disorders. In more severe situations, self-harm and suicidal ideation can occur.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
The exact cause of social anxiety disorder is unknown. Various factors, including genetic, social, environmental, and biological factors, may contribute. Some research has shown that several parts of the brain are involved in the emotions of fear and anxiety. Poorly or underdeveloped social skills may also be a contributing factor. Further research is necessary to determine how various factors contribute to social anxiety disorder. With a better understanding of the illness and its root causes, more effective treatments can be used as part of therapeutic treatment plans at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest.
Diagnosis Social Anxiety Disorder
An accurate diagnosis of social anxiety disorder in adolescents and teens requires a thorough evaluation of symptoms. In many cases, this evaluation will also include input from parents and teachers to help medical professionals better understand how and when symptoms present. The same diagnostic criteria used to diagnose adults apply to children and teens; however, other factors are considered. In teens, their fear must be present when interacting with peers, not just adults.
It is not uncommon for a social anxiety disorder to go undetected in teens. Their symptoms are often perceived as excessive shyness as opposed to a potential mental health condition. It is vital to seek advice from a medical professional if you are concerned about your teen’s symptoms. Early detection and treatment are integral to preventing long-term symptoms and effects.
Treating Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder in teens is aimed at helping to reduce the intensity and severity of symptoms. By reducing fear and anxiety, your teen can better cope in school and with day-to-day activities. Your teen’s treatment plan will involve psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. In some cases, medications or a combination of therapy and medication are used. Your teen’s treatment professionals at Hillcrest will work with your teen and your family to determine the best and most effective course of treatment.
The most commonly used form of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. The goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to teach your teen new, healthier ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that lead to anxiety. They will be encouraged to think about their feelings and emotions and evaluate the logic behind their fears. Adolescents and teens may not realize their fears are irrational. Cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions can help them understand why they feel what they feel and how they can manage their symptoms in more effective ways. As therapy progresses, your teen will have the opportunity to learn and practice social skills they can call upon when placed in situations that may require social interaction. This will help them navigate social, group, and public situations more successfully as they progress through school and into the working world.
Although group environments invoke fear and worry in teens with social anxiety disorder, they can be a helpful treatment model as your teen learns to manage their symptoms. Group therapy sessions involve a group of peers who all struggle with social anxiety disorder. Therefore, no one person feels singled out or “different” from the group. In a setting where everyone shares the same concerns or fears, your teen can benefit from unbiased, honest feedback about how others in the group “see” others. In an open, honest setting, it is possible for your teen to learn about how their thoughts or worries about judgment and rejection are often distorted or unrealistic. Being part of a group may also help your teen learn how others manage their symptoms and help them overcome fears of social situations and group interaction.
Medication is not a suitable treatment option in all cases; however, depending on your teen’s unique treatment needs and goals, their therapist may recommend medication as part of their plan. It is also important to note that medication is not intended for long-term use. Often, medications used to alleviate or manage mental health symptoms are used for a short period before they are discontinued.
Three types of medication are used to help treat social anxiety disorder. Anti-anxiety medications are powerful and often immediately begin to help reduce anxiety related to social anxiety disorder. These medications are powerful, and the risk for dependence when used long-term is high. To avoid dependency or possible addiction, anti-anxiety medications are often used for short periods.
Antidepressants are also helpful for symptoms experienced with social anxiety disorder. Unlike anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants take longer to work. They may also cause undesirable side effects such as difficulties sleeping, stomach upset, and headaches.
Beta-blockers help to block some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as tremors, sweating, or elevated heart rate.
Many who struggle with social anxiety disorder experience the most relief with a treatment plan that combines therapy and medications. Your teen will work closely with their treatment team to determine the best plan for their needs.
If your child or teen experiences anxiety symptoms and you are concerned about their health and well-being, seek help. When social anxiety disorder goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to significant difficulties for your teen as they grow and develop. With proper treatment at Hillcrest, your teen can learn healthy, safe ways to manage their symptoms. We understand the idea of sending your child to a treatment center for help is difficult for parents. Our caring and compassionate team at Hillcrest will work closely with your family to ensure your teen receives the most comprehensive, effective treatment possible. It is possible to treat and recover from a social anxiety disorder. Reach out to our admission team today to learn more about our teen-focused programs in Los Angeles.