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.
Volunteering is an excellent way for teens to join a structured activity that takes the focus off of them. They can interact with other people for the good of the community or another individual, and with prolonged involvement, they can develop a level of comfort that will allow them to socialize with others involved in the effort. Zucker says it’s important, however, for preteens and teens to be in a community service environment where they have to interact with peers—not just with adults.
Get a Job
Whether teens get a job at the local movie theater or at an ice-cream shop, working will invariably lead to socializing as this is almost always a part of the experience. Some kids have less anxiety about socializing when they’re not in a classroom environment, when they’re not expected to perform. Getting some practice socializing in the workplace can boost kids’ confidence and prepare them for when they return to the classroom. (Parents of teens with social anxiety might encourage their children to avoid jobs in libraries or other environments where socializing is discouraged.)
Go to Camp
Camp, particularly overnight camp, is an excellent way for children to reinvent themselves and practice their social skills. Nobody at camp knows that they’re nervous and shy at school. Here, at camp, they can play the role of the confident kid or the funny kid. The sky’s the limit at camp. Parents shouldn’t, however, coerce their kids into a camp experience. If the teen is open to it and excited by it, great. If not, don’t lay on the pressure because that could lead to a difficult and embarrassing situation.
Visit the School
Finally, for students who will be attending junior high or high school for the first time, visiting the school, maybe meeting one or two of the teachers, and getting a sense of where the cafeteria and other spaces are can put the child at ease. Perez-Edgar says it’s a good idea for parents to try to get a copy of a typical schedule and then accompany their preteens and teens to the school over the summer to explore with them. Another possibility is to have children spend an afternoon with a neighbor or other peer they feel comfortable with and just talk about what school is like. “The unknown, uncertainty, is one of the main issues that really provoke their worries,” Perez-Edgar says. “It’s most effective for parents to deal with this issue.”
The other most common issue that provokes a socially anxious child’s worries is the idea that they will be negatively evaluated—that people will judge them harshly. Perez-Edgar and Zucker both stress the importance of behavioral cognitive therapy for children diagnosed with social anxiety. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) can help find a therapist in the local area.
There are many other resources for parents and teens with social anxiety or just general back-to-school anxiety. For more information, contact the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA).