When children start to become more social, they learn to be more aware of what other people think. There may seem to be a right way of doing things, such as how to dress, what to say, and what to do. Sometimes there may be social rules about the things you shouldn’t do, which may cause embarrassment and even lead children to “lose” points with their friends. This can lead to social anxiety in children.
When children experience social anxiety, they may worry so much about what other people think that they stop doing things they would normally feel comfortable with. There may also be a great fear of embarrassing oneself.
Here, we’ll unpack more of what it’s like for kids with social anxiety and what can be done to help.
What is Social Anxiety in Children?
Social anxiety is a type of anxiety in children, which is a mental health condition that causes feelings of fear, dread, or uneasiness. People who have social anxiety experience fear and worry over social interactions.
Children with this disorder may worry excessively about meeting or talking to people. They are also often quite afraid of being embarrassed, rejected, or otherwise judged. Other kids may get social anxiety from public speaking or performing.
Social anxiety can make everyday social interactions difficult, such as going to school, socializing with friends and classmates, and even ordering at restaurants.
What Causes Social Anxiety in Children?
There are several causes that may contribute to the development of social anxiety disorder in children.
Children with parents who have had social anxiety disorder have an increased likelihood of developing the condition themselves [*]. Some research has found that a specific gene (serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4) is involved in producing anxiety-related traits [*]. However, genes alone are not responsible for causing social anxiety in children.
Parenting styles can have a significant effect on anxiety disorders, including social anxiety. Studies have pointed to parenting behaviors such as low warmth and overly controlling as having a direct impact on the development of social anxiety symptoms in children [*].
Children build their self-image and impression of the world based on their relationship with their parents. If parents are quick to criticize, overly concerned about the opinion of others, or reluctant to show affection, then kids may become more fearful and less trustful of other people. Their self esteem and confidence can be negatively impacted as well.
Environmental causes and stressful experiences
Stressful or traumatic life events can influence the development of anxiety problems. Exposure to the following situations may lead to the development of social anxiety:
- Bullying by peers
- Family conflicts
- Domestic violence
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Maternal stress during pregnancy or infancy
- Death or separation from a parent
These experiences reinforce the idea that the world is a scary and an unpredictable place, leading children to have difficulty with trusting others.
Social Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Social anxiety in kids can show up as behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms.
- Refusing to go to school (also a symptom of separation anxiety at school)
- Regularly asking questions for reassurance (e.g., “What if I do something embarrassing?”)
- Refusal to speak in certain situations
- Avoiding eye contact
- Avoiding triggering situations, such as attending birthday parties, talking to teachers, or going to public restrooms
- Difficulty talking to peers or making friends
- Constantly worrying about judgment by others, potentially embarrassing situations, and even appearing anxious
- Fear of meeting or talking to people
- Feeling extremely self-conscious or feeling frustrated during social settings
- Racing heartbeat
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Trouble breathing
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Muscle tension
If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, then it may help to use a social anxiety worksheet to identify which situations worsen their anxiety. This gives you a better idea of how you can help them, which we’ll cover next.
How to Help a Child with Social Anxiety
When parenting a child with social anxiety disorder, it is important to learn some techniques and tips you can use to help your child. Here are some you can try:
Teach relaxation techniques
Learning adaptive coping strategies is nearly impossible for anybody who is dealing with intense physical symptoms of anxiety, so the number one priority is to calm the anxious response in your child. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscles repeatedly) can help your child reduce feelings of anxiety, especially in social situations. Anxiety coping statements can also help your child calm down and lower their anxiety.
Practice cognitive reframing
Social anxiety disorder in children often manifests as being overwhelmed by negative beliefs that reinforce anxious thoughts. These beliefs may include:
- Assuming the worst case scenario
- Believing that others see them negatively
Teaching your child to recognize negative thoughts can help halt the train of thought and replace them with positive ones. For instance, your child may say things like, “My teacher thinks I’m stupid because I’m bad at math.” You can help them by recognizing the negative thought, grounding it in reality (teachers help children with what they don’t know), and replace it with a positive thought (“My teacher can help me become better at math”). It may help to use a worksheet on changing negative thoughts to do this more easily.
Use the stepladder approach
The stepladder approach involves starting small and tackling easier challenges before facing bigger obstacles. This gentle technique can be very helpful for children with social anxiety. For example, if your child struggles with talking to new people, then they could start out by saying “goodbye” to a friend they’ve met a few times. The next step could be saying “hello” to a new friend or classmate. Eventually, they can start having more conversations at school.
Be gentle and encouraging
Children who are socially anxious are often scared and shy, so being gentle with them is a must. No matter how frustrating you may feel, avoid criticizing or being negative about your child’s social anxiety. This is especially important in social settings, like a child experiencing social anxiety at school.
If your child does something that usually makes them anxious, make sure to acknowledge it and give them plenty of praise. Do this quietly in social settings, but express yourself freely when you are alone with your child. This helps improve their self-esteem.
Work on friendship skills
While making friends is something that your child must do on their own, you can still help them practice their friendship skills. Teach them how to greet others, slide in and out of groups with ease, start conversations, and listen and respond.
Professional Help for Social Anxiety in Children
Having a child with social anxiety is normal. However, if your child’s symptoms worsen or start to interfere with everyday activities such as school, socializing with friends, or other areas of functioning, then it may be time to seek professional help.
At what age does social anxiety begin in children?
Social anxiety can begin as early as 8 years of age.
What triggers social anxiety in kids?
Social anxiety may be triggered by a number of different social interactions. These include but are not limited to speaking in front of others, conversing with unfamiliar individuals, family reunions, playing with peers, and having to perform in front of an audience.
Can parenting cause social anxiety?
Yes, certain parenting styles can cause social anxiety as discussed above. However, this is not the only way a child might develop social anxiety.
The Bottom Line
Social anxiety can be a frustrating condition to deal with, especially for children who may not yet fully grasp their emotions.
Fortunately, social anxiety disorder is very treatable. With the right professional and treatment, children can learn to cope with their symptoms and use strategies that are effective in different settings.
- Stein M, Chen C, Jain S, et al. Genetic Risk Variants for Social Anxiety. 1 March 2018.
- Forstner A, Rambau S, Friedrich N, et al. Further evidence for genetic variation at the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 contributing toward anxiety. June 2017.
- Garcia K, Carlton C, Richey J. Parenting Characteristics among Adults With Social Anxiety and their Influence on Social Anxiety Development in Children: A Brief Integrative Review. 28 April 2021.