From Scared To Social // Helping The Socially Anxious Child Acclimate To His New Environment

By Shiffy Friedman, MSW

With summer camp and its ensuing social adjustments on the horizon, many children as well as their parents are bracing themselves for the changes ahead. While even the most well-adjusted child might experience some anxiety about the prospect of making new friends and adapting to unfamiliar surroundings, for some children the apprehension is unbearable.

Shani is a young woman in her twenties who experienced social anxiety as a child. More than a decade later, she still remembers what it felt like to arrive in summer camp for the very first time.

“Whenever I think back to those first few days,” she says, “my stomach clenches to the point that it’s painful to breathe—and it happened so many years ago! It was terrifying to suddenly find myself plunged into a new environment, knowing that I’d have to spend the summer with all these strangers. I spent hours in the bathroom, feeling miserable and sad.”

For children like Shani, the slight uneasiness that others might feel in new social situations is drastically magnified, and the nervousness and angst can skyrocket to an alarming degree.

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a condition characterized by excessive self-consciousness that goes beyond common shyness. A child with social anxiety is so worried about being judged negatively by others that she’s terrified of doing or saying anything that might potentially cause her humiliation. Even when the child grows older and realizes that this preoccupation isn’t reasonable, it’s hard to stop the fear. While social anxiety disorder is more prevalent in adolescents, it frequently begins as early as age three or four.

Because our society values eidelkeit and refinement, children with social anxiety can sometimes be written off as merely possessing impressive quantities of these traits. The truth, however, is that they suffer deeply, and their symptoms will only worsen as time goes on and the condition is left untreated. Because kids with social phobia are generally compliant at home and their parents are never told of misbehavior in school, many parents fail to recognize a problem until their child is already withdrawn from activities and peers. Unfortunately, by that time, the child may be experiencing extreme isolation and falling behind developmentally and academically.

Social phobia can also go undiagnosed because parents confuse it with shyness. Shyness is a temperament; it is not debilitating in the same way as social anxiety disorder. A shy child may take longer to warm up to a situation, but she eventually does. Also, a shy child engages with other kids, albeit at a different level of intensity than his peers. By contrast, children with social phobia get very upset when they have to interact with people. It is a frightening situation for them, and one they would rather avoid altogether.

While in many cases social phobia requires professional intervention, parents can also play an important role in their child’s adjustment process. Here are some guidelines about what and what not to do:
Encourage discussion, but don’t take the “logical” route.

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