Back to School Social Anxiety
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Many preteens and teens are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to school in the fall. But how can parents know when anxiety about the social challenges of the new school year is more serious than normal back to school jitters?
Is your child just shy and introverted, or does she not want to return to school because she has social anxiety? Is it “just a phase” or does it constitute a disorder? Anxiety can be triggered by a specific incident, it can be a result of environmental factors in the home or elsewhere, or it can be an inherited trait. It can be a recurring but insignificant problem in a person’s life, or it can be all inclusive. Often times parents wonder whether they should concern themselves more or less about their child’s anxiety, back-to-school or otherwise.
More often than not, parents’ instincts about their children are accurate, says Bonnie Zucker, psychologist and author of Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents and Children. Zucker, who treats patients in private practice in Maryland and at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression in Washington DC, says that “parents usually know if their child’s anxiety is different from other teens’—if the anxiety is interfering with his life.”
She explains that everyone has a little social anxiety. “It’s pretty typical that you want to do some screening of how people view you,” Zucker says. “This is natural.”
Most children’s level of screening is minimal and natural. But for some preteens and teens, worry about how people view them is more persistent, impacting their ability to function on a daily basis. Koraly Perez-Edgar, Assistant Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, says though social anxiety is relatively common in teens (about 9%), there is a lot of remission with the disorder. “These people might be shyer than most people,” says Perez-Edgar, “but it doesn’t necessarily persist into adulthood. You see it most often in children ages 11 to 18.”
For teens diagnosed with social anxiety and for teens who simply have some anxiety about social interactions, preparing to go back to school can be a challenge. But Zucker says summer offers great opportunities for preteens and teens to work on their social skills. Here are a few ways your child can ease into social situations before school starts:
Zucker explains that rehearsing what they will say or do in certain situations is beneficial for children with social problems. They might practice calling a restaurant and ordering from the takeout menu, or buying food at the grocery store and chatting with the teller. Zucker says it’s a good idea for parents to sit down with their kids and help them write a list of social situations that cause them anxiety—a face-your-fears exercise. Parents should help to motivate their children rather than protect them by accommodating them, which ends up validating their anxiety. “The more experience they have doing things and getting out there, the more they’ll build up their sense of competency as a person who is social,” says Zucker.
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