When Shyness Crosses into Social Phobia

Everyone experiences moments when they are shy or self-conscious about meeting new people or participating in big groups.  Many children and teenagers have bouts of anxiety about being in front of others, joining new groups, or being around people they don’t know.  This kind of shyness is completely normal.  But a racing heart and stomach full of butterflies can signify something more than just normal shyness.  Some adolescents are dealing with a type of anxiety about social situations that goes beyond being uncomfortable; they are dealing with a disorder called social phobia.

The biggest difference between normal shyness and social phobia is the degree to which it impacts the person’s life.  People who are shy or uncomfortable in public can bring themselves to attend events, make presentations, and interact with others, even though it is difficult.  Those with social phobia generally cannot.  The anxiety they experience is so extreme, it can be unbearable.  People with social phobia may find it impossible to make eye contact, give oral presentations in class, tryout for sports teams, or even join non-competitive extracurricular clubs.

What is Social Phobia?

Social phobia, which is also called social anxiety, is an anxiety disorder that causes extreme self-consciousness and self-isolating behavior.  People with this disorder can be paralyzed by their fear and anxiety and may find it impossible to participate in many everyday activities.   Similarly to other phobias, the fears involved in social phobia are not associated with anything that is actually dangerous but the person’s mind and body react as if it is.  Physical symptoms are the same as they would be if the person was confronted by real danger that triggered their fight or flight response.  This is an important aspect of this disorder that parents must understand.

Signs of Social Phobia

One of the hardest things for parents is to know when their child is simply shy and when they are experiencing social phobia.  Teens experiencing social phobia may feel their heart race, start breathing faster, and break out in a cold sweat when confronted with a social situation.  These are all the effects of an adrenaline rush caused by their social anxiety.   Teens with social phobia will withdraw and go to great lengths to avoid situations that incite this fear.

Effects of Social Phobia

This type of anxiety can be difficult at any life stage, but for teenagers, it can be devastating as so much of a teenager’s life is about social development and social skills.  Teenagers with social phobia may:

  • Be lonely because of their self-isolation and inability to meet new people.
  • Be frustrated because they want to make friends and participate in school activities and social events but their fear keeps them from being able to do so.
  • Be losing out on getting the best education they can because they cannot volunteer, present in class, speak up when they know the answer, or ask for help when they don’t.
  • Be missing opportunities to use or expand their talents.
  • Be missing opportunities to learn new skills, develop new interests, and participate in their own life.

What Parents Can Do

The good news is that the effects of social phobia can be mitigated and teenagers dealing with this anxiety disorder can learn to overcome their fears.  With the support of friends and family and the assistance of a therapist or other mental health practitioner, teens can learn coping skills, success strategies, and tools for managing their anxiety.  This support can enable them to live full, rich lives and ensure they don’t miss out all the great things about being a teenager.


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