It is very normal for teenagers to worry, especially at school. Think about it! They are stuck between being a carefree child and adult life filled with responsibility and decisions. Adolescence is certainly a challenging time for any teenager faced with school, sports, extracurricular activities, social and family life, relationships and of course, thoughts of the future.
When a student suffers from social anxiety disorder, they are not only worried about these normal pressures. They have the added pressure of having intense feelings and fear in social situations of any kind which in school can be especially difficult when social interaction is not only expected but required. These emotions are excessive, irrational to the onlooker, and may very well impede any normal functioning of daily life including their education. Social anxiety will stand in the way of a teen’s ability to achieve their goals and operate in a healthy way during the day unless addressed by a trained medical professional like those at Beachside Treatment Center.
One of the most common mental health disorders faced by teens, social anxiety disorder is often dismissed by unassuming parents and teachers. “Oh, Billy is just very shy. He has always avoided meeting new people. He will grow out of it.” “Suzy doesn’t like to raise her hand in class because she doesn’t like the teacher.” Unfortunately, many teens are not simply shy or introverted and, in many cases, they do not grow out of it. Instead, they suffer from what can be a debilitating mental health issue which can derail their academic performance, interrupt future plans and goals, and be the cause of missed opportunities if left untreated.
Let’s look at several behaviors that may provide clues that a student is suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder
- Many people, adults included, feel uncomfortable about speaking in front of a crowd, doing something for the first time, or taking a test. Commonly called “stage fright”, this is a normal phenomenon that most people overcome once they are actually in the situation. In other words, once they step on stage or in front of the mic. However, for a teen with social anxiety disorder, the fear is such that they are frozen and they cannot actually move beyond it. It is important to understand what it is that is causing the student to feel so fearful of this particular social situation.
- Teenagers are social creatures by nature; chatting, texting, going to parties, sporting events, and hanging out. They desperately want to fit in which for some teens may cause other mental health issues of their own. However, for the teen suffering from social anxiety disorder, any communication with another teen or adult for that matter is extremely difficult and causes intense feelings of anxiety. Even a conversation about homework could be challenging! They may have difficulty making eye contact or joining in any school functions or groups.
- A normally high performing student suddenly avoids speaking in front of the class, participating in a group discussion or presenting information to a teacher.
- Self-confidence and worry go hand in hand in a teen suffering from social anxiety disorder. They may worry excessively about how others see them and doubt if they are good enough to be a part of the group. While it is normal for teens to be afraid of being embarrassed or ridiculed, a socially anxious teen cannot handle the rejection or even the possibility that they will not be accepted, and therefore, refuse to put themselves in that situation at all. This pervasive worry will certainly damage a teen’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
- Symptoms of social anxiety disorder often manifest themselves in physical ailments such as excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, aches and pains, and increased heart rate. Everyone gets nervous! However, the reality of any social interaction will be so intense that it causes sometimes debilitating reactions.
- Aside from the spontaneous physical symptoms that social anxiety may bring on, students may experience the inability to sleep, causing them to be inattentive and sleepy in class. The fear of falling asleep in class creates an additional source of anxiety and stress.
For many students who are suffering from social anxiety, they are fully aware that their fears and worries are illogical and irrational yet they do not know how to change their thoughts or address the root cause. This is where they must consult with their pediatrician or mental health professional to discuss treatment to ensure that they can overcome their fears, participate in their education and enjoy their life. The trained professionals at Beachside Treatment Center are a great resource for treating a student’s social anxiety disorder symptoms.
While social anxiety for anyone is a serious mental health issue, a student with social anxiety is faced with the added pressure of being forced to interact with a roomful of other teens for hours at a time. In school, there is little opportunity for a teen to escape from the necessity of making eye contact with other students and teachers. They cannot excuse themselves from the room when called upon to speak nor can they crawl under the desk to avoid being seen.
Students have been known to take extraordinary measures to avoid having to interact at school; making up ridiculous excuses to leave class, mysterious illnesses to skip school, or misplacing/losing their homework to avoid speaking in front of the class. Unfortunately, the more that a student avoids school, social groups and interaction of any kind, the more difficult the situation becomes. As they separate themselves further from other teens, they begin to be labeled or stigmatized as weird, anti-social or an outcast, further adding to their feelings of being unwelcome or not accepted. Their academic performance plummets as they struggle to remain invisible in class and avoid any interaction, placing additional stress on them and causing more worry. Because of their failure to engage with other students, they do not make any meaningful friendships, causing them to feel even more isolated and unsure.
For a student with social anxiety, there are certain situations and events in school that may be more traumatic than others: the first day of school, a presentation, having to introduce themselves and remember the names of other students, walking into a crowded lunchroom. Each of these scenarios places an incredible amount of stress on a student suffering from social anxiety disorder. However, there are some solutions to help students to overcome their fears and anxiety when in school. Although they will need to be treated by a mental health professional to learn how to manage their symptoms and fears in the long-term, the following are several tips to help students endure the many hours that they have to be in a social setting while in school.
9 tips to help students with social anxiety disorder
- While group work is important, to a teen with social anxiety, it can be terrifying. As they continuously worry about how others think about them, smaller groups of 2 or 3 may make the situation easier to manage, allowing them to focus more on the project or discussion.
- Just the word “presentation” is enough to send a socially anxious student off the deep end. Rather than forcing the student to present in front of the whole class, they may be relieved to have the option of presenting to the teacher alone, alleviating some of the stress and anxiety and allowing them to focus on the presentation itself.
- An assigned seating arrangement for a student who is overly worried about what others think could make the situation that much more traumatic. Students who are experiencing excessive anxiety about sitting near others will be unable to focus on classwork or the lesson being taught, rather fully consumed with who is sitting next to them and what they are thinking about them. These students will feel more comfortable in the back of the room or a location separated from others.
- Because socially anxious students will typically not ask questions in fear of what others will think of them, they may miss homework assignments or other notes if they have to listen only. They may be so consumed with questions swirling around their head or what the teacher thinks of them, they will inevitably overlook or forget essential information. In this case, it is important to write homework on the board or to provide slides or presentations if possible.
- Students with social anxiety disorder already dread having to participate in activities either in front of or with others in gym class. Why not allow them to change into their gym clothes in a private location rather than front and center where their self-worth and image are already under the microscope in their mind! For some, even the thought of having to compete with others where performance is judged is too much for them to handle. For those students, group participation or competition will naturally be avoided.
- Often socially anxious students will not approach authority figures for fear of being judged, shunned or rejected. However, if they are approached, it may make the situation a bit more comfortable. Although they may still not use good eye contact or demonstrate positive body language, they may be more willing to open up about their feelings and fears if approached appropriately.
- When interacting with a student with social anxiety disorder, patience is the key to success. While some may respond positively to any efforts, others may resist or object to any accommodations, thinking that it is placing them in the spotlight or highlighting their inadequacies. Through patience and perseverance, even the most anxious students will come to understand that there is help for them in managing and overcoming their worry, fear, and stress.
- Create mock situations or role-play to help a socially anxious teen prepare and experience what to expect from social interaction. If given the opportunity to present or perform in front of a small audience or even empty classroom, they may be able to overcome or at least mitigate their fear of presenting in front of a larger group.
- Although it may be difficult for a student to engage with other students, it is important to encourage them to get to know at least one other student. A friend and support system makes going to class easier and gives the student the encouragement and confidence that they need to get through those grueling hours.
Many people take for granted that teenagers are automatically outgoing, talkative and social. But school can be a serious challenge for students with social anxiety disorder. When students experience debilitating fear regularly, it is bound to have other implications on their lives, perspectives, behavior and overall health. However, they are not alone and there is help for them.
If you suspect that a student is suffering from social anxiety disorder, reach out to their parents to discuss behaviors that you have witnessed, conversations that you have had and any accommodations that have been made. A school psychologist should be involved and will recommend that the student seek the advice of the pediatrician who after an evaluation, may recommend them to mental health professionals like those at Beachside Treatment Center.
Through cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management, group, and individual therapy and possibly medication, a student with social anxiety can return to school and live a “normal” teenage lifestyle including relationships, social interaction, academic success and most importantly, a healthy self-image and lifestyle.