Everyone feels anxious sometimes. It’s very normal. In fact, anxiety has a useful purpose in our lives; it keeps us safe. When we’re anxious, our bodies set off a reaction called the flight-or-flight response, and this causes changes in our bodies… faster heartbeat, trembling hands, shallow breathing, focused thinking. These changes help us act quickly when we need to, to protect ourselves -like staying away from a wild animal!

Sometimes our bodies set off the same fight-or-flight response even when there is no danger, however. This can happen when our thoughts frighten us. People with social anxiety disorder have frightening thoughts about being judged poorly by others or becoming embarrassed in certain social situations. They have excessive self-consciousness that goes beyond shyness and interferes with their daily functioning.

There are two types of social anxiety disorder. One focuses on performing in front of others, such as speaking in groups, meeting someone new, answering teachers’ questions in class, playing a sport or instrument in front of others, talking to a friend’s parent, or ordering in restaurants. The other is more interactional, such as going to school, attending a party or riding the school bus. These children imagine that their words and behaviors are being scrutinized and judged by their “audience.” It can be so anxiety-provoking that they experience the same physical responses as if they were in real danger, as if the child was really facing the wild animal.

How can you identify social anxiety disorder in children?

Children with social anxiety disorder may have very good social skills when they are not anxious. They may interact easily with those they are comfortable with; their friends, siblings, parents and relatives. They may have an age-appropriate understanding of social cues and a good sense of humor.

It’s helpful to observe how your child interacts with others in different social situations and to listen to feedback from teachers. School age children with social anxiety disorder may refuse to play with new children if you are not there, be extremely clingy to you, or refuse to initiate conversations because they are so anxious about speaking in front of others. In school, they may not participate in class discussions, feel unable to volunteer answers to questions, and not ask for help when they need it.

When they need to perform, socially anxious children may find excuses to avoid the situation. They may miss school that day, the recital or game. They may complain of being sick when they are not or develop real stomach aches and pains in response to their anxiety.

Trying new things can be a scary idea for anyone, but especially for socially anxious children, and especially when they are around a new peer group. While most children will feel some anxiety in these situations, a child with social anxiety disorder will feel intense anxiety or choose not to participate. They may not join a new sport or group in school for example, even when it seems like fun to them.

Children with social anxiety are likely to show their concerns and worries in questions to parents or by making negative self-statements such as:  “What if I say something dumb?” “What if they think I’m weird?” “My voice sounds funny.” “I don’t like school.”

When they are faced with what they consider to be frightening social situations, children with social anxiety disorder will show some or all of the following physical signs and symptoms:

  • difficulties breathing
  • racing heart
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • refusing to speak
  • blushing
  • shaking

How can you address social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety can be a debilitating disorder that requires professional help. In the book, The Tallest Bridge in the World, Thomas suffers from performance-based social anxiety. With help from a knowledgeable therapist named Rose, Thomas learns the types of thoughts that lead to his anxieties and with a lot of practice, he learns how to change them.  He gathers the following helpful tools for his social toolbox:

  • The Magnifying Glass – nobody is looking at anyone any closer than anyone else …Thomas learns that he’s not under a magnifying glass and he is able to relax a little.
  • The Domino – our thoughts affect our feelings and behaviors …Thomas learns to pay attention to his thoughts to see if they make sense.
  • Nobody’s Perfect – we don’t have to be perfect for people to like us…Thomas learns that mistakes are normal and sometimes it’s those imperfections that make you more likeable… more like you!
  • It is What it is – not everything has to be good or bad… instead, Thomas learns that most of the time, it just is what it is.
  • Riding the Wave – do the sensible things even when you’re nervous about doing them…Thomas learns that the nervous feeling is only temporary. Then the next time, he won’t feel quite as nervous.
  • Calm Body – Thomas learns that breathing deeply in through his nose so the breath fills up his belly, then out through his nose, calms his body, and so does releasing tense muscles.
  • Here and Now – Thomas discovers he can only think about one thing at a time. When he stays present and pays attention to what’s going on in that moment, he doesn’t have room to think about what people are thinking of him. This becomes a shield against his anxiety.

If your child has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, you may also want to set up a treatment plan with a licensed psychologist to help address the issue. There are many resources available to help your anxious child. You may want to start with our Psychologist Locator and explore additional articles on this site, including the APA-approved resources on the Bookstore page.

Reference List

by Ellen Flanagan Burns

This Article's Author

Ellen Flanagan Burns is a school psychologist and the author of several books dedicated to helping children overcome anxiety. She believes that children’s books can be a powerful therapeutic tool and supports cognitive-based interventions for children with anxiety-related issues.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • The tallest bridge social anxiety book cover

    The Tallest Bridge in the World: A Story for Children About Social Anxiety

    by Ellen Flanagan Burns, MA

    Are they staring at me because I look silly?
    What if I mess up in my presentation — will everyone laugh at me?
    What if I fail at swim tryouts?
    I’ll be so embarrassed!

    Thomas has always been a bit shy, but recently his nervousness has been getting in the way of the things he would like to do. He realizes it may be time to talk to someone.

    With the help of his parents and a therapist, Thomas learns how social anxiety affects his brain, and everyday tools and strategies to cope with and combat it.

    Includes a Dear Reader and a Note to Parents with more information on social anxiety in preteens, and the cognitive-behavioral strategies you can use to cope with it. (picture book, ages 8-12)

  • What to do when you feel to shy cover

    What to Do When You Feel Too Shy: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety

    by Claire A. B. Freeland, PhD and Jacqueline B. Toner, PhD

    Circus clowns perform tricks and make us laugh. They wear bright colors, big shoes, and all kinds of wigs and colorful hats. Have you noticed that they seem to like people looking at them and laughing at them?

    Lots of kids feel shy when they feel that other people notice them. But some kids get super uncomfortable being in the spotlight. Does this sound like you? If you feel too shy or nervous too often, or if you miss out on cool activities and fun because you worry about what other people might think about you, this book is for you!

    What to Do When You Feel Too Shy guides children and their parents through the emotions underlying social anxiety using strategies and techniques based on cognitive-behavioral principles. This interactive self-help book is the complete resource for educating, motivating, and empowering children to overcome social anxiety — so they can join in the circus of fun and friends!

    This book is part of the Magination Press What-to-Do Guides for Kids® series. (picture book, ages 6-12)