Does Your Teen Struggle With Social Anxiety?
I’ve been seeing a lot of social anxiety popping up in my office these days. I think some of that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and how that changed schooling and socializing, at least temporarily. Technology is also at a point where a lot of interactions can be via texting/ messaging, social media, and/or video game chat. These coupled with general, developmentally normative adolescent self-consciousness, it can be a real struggle for many teens to make new friends, keep the friendships they have, and try new experiences. If this sounds like your teen, I’ve got some tips for teens and tips for parents today. One short disclaimer is that the topic of social anxiety can be broad and all encompassing, so today I’m not per se referring to the more clinical, diagnosable social anxiety, but these tips are more for general anxiety and/or shyness in social situations.
THINGS THAT CAN HELP SOCIAL ANXIETY:
- Learning Anxiety Management Skills: Learning and incorporating anxiety management techniques can help one to feel more calm when doing the social things. Anxiety management examples include: regular exercise, proper nutrition, mindfulness, meditation, breathing, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and affirmations for anxiety.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is essentially about taking committed action in the direction of things that are important to you, regardless of how you “feel” about it. The day when you feel “totally comfortable” branching out socially may never come, and so instead it’s helpful to tolerate some uncomfortable feelings in order to get/ do what’s important to you.
- Willingness: Are you willing to be somewhat uncomfortable in order to get what you want? If someone were to offer you a million dollars if you spoke to someone new each day for 30 consecutive days, Would you do it? If yes, which is a likely answer, then you have a little more flexibility with your anxiety than you may have thought, and/or you would be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable feelings in order to get the million dollars.
- Build Up Your Social Tolerance Slowly: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Increasing your distress tolerance by even a few minutes at a time can be helpful. For example, if you want to meet others at your community college but you instead rush to and from the car when on campus for class, you could stretch your comfort zone by spending time after class in a public area on campus, doing some schoolwork or reading. (it will also help in this situation if you’re not on your phone and don’t have your headphones in, as you’ll seem more approachable; people feel like they’re interrupting someone if they have their airpods in or are on their phone versus eating a sandwich or reading something casually.)
- Start Small: In terms of asking questions, starting conversations, and keeping conversations going, it can help to start small. Start with people whose job it is to be friendly (such as the coffeeshop cashier, cashier at the grocery store, or the office front desk person) While it may not work every time, people in these customer service positions are generally used to making conversation and being polite, so it will be an affirming experience/ not a situation with a lot of letdown.
- Practice What Your Will Say: It may seem or feel silly initially, but it can decrease social anxiety if you think ahead of time what you might talk about. It can be helpful to think about things you have done in the last week or two, as well as things that may have gone on for your friend. (eg, “Did you take any trips this Summer?”, “Did I tell you we got a new dog?”, etc) Then the back and forth regarding questions you might ask or a story you might tell can help ease the conversation… and the uncomfortable feelings you may be having.
- Get People Talking About Themselves: it may feel less awkward/ less anxiety producing to get someone talking about themselves. Many people – especially extroverts – enjoy talking about themselves, and so you just asking questions and keeping the conversation is a great start. (just be careful about not making the person feel interrogated/ don’t fire too many questions at once)
- Join a Club or Sport: Joining a club, sport, youth group, or volunteering puts you in a structured environment with other people whom have the same or similar interests. It can make it easier to have something in common to talk about.
- Exposure: Taking a public speaking class or improv [comedy] class can be a great way to build confidence in a structured and supportive environment. In fact, a lot of improv comedy principles are helpful in outside life, such as “don’t think” and building on conversations by saying “yes, and…” rather than denying or saying no. https://saccomedyspot.com/
- Decreased Use of Technology: Use technology mostly to facilitate in-person things – message someone to suggest eating lunch together at school tomorrow, plan a 1:1 or small group to go see a movie, set up a day for a friend to come over to swim, etc. Technology can be a helpful facilitator for socialization, just not great as the only source of socialization.
- “Just Like Me” Practice: Humans have a lot of the same emotions. Even if they appear to, ‘have it altogether’, most everyone has things they struggle with. In the “just like me” practice, you use whatever situation you’re in to encourage yourself. Examples related to branching out socially include, “Just like me, everyone wants to be accepted”; “Just like me, everyone feels insecure about some things”; “Just like me, everyone wants friends”. Keep in mind that in basically any situation, there is somebody who is looking for the same things you are.
- Reward Yourself: Celebrate your successes when you’ve met your goal, regardless of the outcome. For example, if you asked someone to go get food and they decline, you still met your goal of branching out/ asking someone to do something. Congrats are in order, and can encourage you along the way! Keep in mind that professional baseball players with highest batting averages still struck out more than half the time when up to the plate.
- Work with a Therapist or Coach: Social anxiety – and anxiety, in general – can be very debilitating. The ideas in today’s blog just scratch the surface and may not be custom fit to your situation in the same way we could do in individual therapy.
SPECIFIC IDEAS FOR PARENTS TO HELP:
- Parents, “Set Your Teen Up”: Similar to playdates that you scheduled for your child when they were little, now doing things with family friends who have similar aged kids as you can be a good small step in a supportive social environment. Another idea is to do an activity together with them where y’all might meet other people their age – such as the mother:daughter volunteer group, National Charity League https://www.nationalcharityleague.org/chapter/sacramento/ , a volunteer project in general https://www.handsonsacto.org/ , or an event at their school.
- Parents, Build Up Your Teen’s Self-Esteem/ Self-Worth: While they may shy away and roll their eyes, complimenting your kid on who they, things they are good at, their style, etc can be helpful in building their confidence. Having a loving, supportive environment at home where people are ‘on your team’ can help mitigate the anxiety of dealing with the outside world and trying new things.
- Parents, Require Your Teen To Participate: This may not go over well with your teen, but some parents find it helpful to essentially require their [junior high or high school] teen to be in a sport, active club, or the like at least one per semester or season. Not only is this good for socialization, but it can tend to keep them occupied and out of ‘trouble’.