8 simple ways to ease your teen’s social anxiety
By Alexandra Boeving Allen, PhD
By Alexandra Boeving Allen, PhD
If you think it feels awkward to re-emerge into the world post-pandemic, imagine what it’s like for a teenager! Even the most outgoing, confident kid may be experiencing some social anxiety. Here’s what that could look like — and how you can support them
What is social anxiety?
We can all have a blip of anxiety when we feel on the spot — for instance, when we meet new people, give a presentation, or walk into a party that’s already in full swing. But if you have social anxiety, you may feel overwhelmed with a fear of being judged by others.
What social anxiety looks like
Like all types of anxiety, social anxiety is probably caused by a combination of genetics and environment. No surprise, living through a pandemic can also contribute some unique concerns. Whether your teen is voicing it aloud or not, they could be worried about things like:
Getting sick with COVID (or infecting others in your home)
What life will be like when it returns to “normal”
Changes they’ve gone through during the pandemic
Transitioning from virtual to in-person classes
Starting a new school or school year
Having “rusty” social skills
Feeling unsure where their friendships stand
Their future after high school
Shifts in your family’s finances or living situation
If your teen’s having anxiety about social situations, you could notice:
Negative thoughts. Many teens put a lot of value on what others think about them, and that’s especially true for kids with social anxiety. You may repeatedly hear phrases like, “I can’t do it,” “ I’m not good enough,” or “No one likes me.”
Reluctance to leave home. Leaving their “safe space” to enter social settings can feel scary for socially anxious kids.
Avoiding certain places or events. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a large party — some kids may feel daunted by one-on-one encounters, too.
Physical symptoms. Some anxious kids may develop headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms when they don’t want to go somewhere, like school. They’re not faking — this is how they’re genuinely experiencing their anxiety.
Support your kid through social anxiety
Social anxiety isn’t something that has one quick fix. And everyone is different — a strategy that may work great for one kid may not help yours. The good news is that you have lots of different options to try.
For instance, you can:
Normalize your teen’s anxiety. Remind your teen just how unusual (and difficult) this past year has been. Reassure them that everyone’s social skills are rusty right now. (You could give an example of how you’re struggling, too.) It may also be helpful to point out that like anything, we’ll all get better with practice.
Accept how they feel. If your teen tells you they aren’t feeling good about their appearance, your instinct may be to insist that they’re wrong. Instead, validate what they’re feeling — for instance, “It sounds like you’re feeling self-conscious about how you look. I don’t feel that way about you.” Your kid will feel heard by you, instead of feeling that they have to argue their point.
Talk about physical symptoms. What physical signs crop up once your teen’s social anxiety flares? For instance, do they notice that their voice gets softer? Do they get quiet? Do their hands sweat? Being aware of these signs can help them know it’s time to put a coping strategy into play.
Encourage coping skills. The next time anxiety strikes, suggest your teen listen to music, physically move around, or try a technique like deep breathing or visualizing a safe place. (It helps to practice ahead of time.) They may need to try more than one thing, or they may find that something that worked once doesn’t work a second time. If they don’t get any relief from these coping strategies, a therapist can offer more suggestions.
Start small. For instance, if your teen’s feeling anxious about being in a group, encourage them to first try a relaxed activity with just a couple of friends.
Make a plan. Talk about who your teen can lean on if their social anxiety feels intense. For instance, is there a friend at school they could talk to? A counselor or teacher? Having a “go to” person may help their anxiety feel more manageable.
Help them reconnect. If your teen’s hesitant about meeting up with a friend, ask, “What did you two like doing before the pandemic?” That can help them figure out ways to safely reconnect.
Have an open mind. Your teen may socialize a lot differently than you did when you were their age. Choosing to game online with their friends rather than hang out in person may not be satisfying to you, but accept that it could suit their social needs just fine.
Above all, make sure to remind your teen that they’re resilient. (If they’re skeptical, ask them to help you list some of their strengths and recent accomplishments.) Reassure your teen that they really can figure out ways to manage their anxiety, and you’re here to support them as they do. And remember, any time that you’re feeling like you need additional support, you can reach out to your Brightline coach.