It’s a common dream—the dream of arriving at work in our pajamas or forgetting everything we needed to know for a big presentation or performance. We wake up with our hearts pounding and palms sweating, still overcome by the humiliation we felt in the dream.
Those types of dreams usually occur as a reaction to stressful or anxious situations, but the feelings of humiliation and embarrassment experienced in the dream seem very real. Those who have Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) experience a similar fear daily while interacting with their peers. Social Anxiety is an intense fear of being negatively judged, rejected, or embarrassed by others in social situations. Symptoms can range from blushing and rapid heart rate to nausea, sleep disturbance, and avoidance of social situations.
Social Anxiety Disorder in Children
As the third most common mental health disorder (after depression and substance abuse), over 12% of the population suffer from symptoms of social anxiety every day, with numbers of social anxiety since COVID and reentry anxiety rising as students return to their school campuses and our nation begins to find some normalcy in a post-pandemic world. Signs of kids with social anxiety usually begin to show between the ages of eight and fifteen, which is the developmental stage when adolescents typically feel more self-aware and self-conscious. What is reentry anxiety? It’s the anxiety students feel about re-entering public spaces like school or other gathering places now that most COVID restrictions have lifted.
There is a difference between kids who are shy and those who have a social anxiety disorder. It’s normal to be nervous about meeting new people, giving a speech in class, or interacting with a group of strangers. When there is a fear so intense that it keeps kids from functioning or performing tasks, that’s a strong sign of a kid with social anxiety. For instance, when a student doesn’t try out for the volleyball team because they are worried about being scrutinized, even though they love volleyball, they could be suffering from social anxiety. Other examples include not asking the teacher a question for fear of sounding unintelligent or seeing a group of friends laughing and imagining they are mocking them even when reassured that they are not. A shy person will eventually warm up to people, while those with social anxiety will not.
Post-Pandemic Anxiety Disorders
Those with social anxiety before the pandemic may have found that the pandemic allowed for too much time to “overthink” instead of socialize, causing their condition to worsen. Even those who showed no signs of dealing with social anxiety before the pandemic may have developed Social Anxiety Disorder during the isolation of quarantine. For instance, academically successful students who didn’t show symptoms of social phobia pre-COVID may now have post-COVID social anxiety because of the uncertainty in their ability to succeed after months of being removed from a system where they felt successful. Some kids may fear socializing post pandemic—after months in isolation, they may fear that their appearance has changed and that they will be judged by their peers, while others may fear a loss of friendships due to the passing of time when they were unable to maintain their former relationships.
The pandemic affected every child in some way. For some, the pandemic meant more time at home with their families, and they still were able to communicate with and spend time with friends. Kids who were already enrolled in virtual school before the pandemic began were ahead of the game when it came to their education and, as a result, saw fewer disruptions in their everyday learning routines. Because their school routine didn’t change drastically, they may not experience the reentry anxiety or other COVID anxiety kids in brick-and-mortar schools are experiencing.
For others, the pandemic dramatically impacted the central hub for socialization and emotional development in the childhood years—in-person school—which looked very different. Gone were the casual hallway conversations with peers, opportunities for classroom discussions, field trips, and so many traditional social opportunities and milestones. In some states, in-person schools were closed for nearly two years, leading to what is now considered a social anxiety pandemic. Now that these schools have mostly reopened, they are seeing a sharp rise in kids with social anxiety and behavioral issues, including fighting.
Along with change in everyday childhood norms, many children experienced trauma during the pandemic, such as the loss of loved ones, divorce, poverty, and relocation to different neighborhoods and cities.
The Impact of COVID-19 and Social Anxiety on Students
Kids have more emotional challenges when faced with the types of sudden life changes that happened during the pandemic. Sudden changes trigger elevated levels of cortisol in the brain, which activates our “fight or flight” reactions. There is a natural defensive reaction during transitions, when kids subconsciously prepare themselves for the next sudden change that might come along. With time, we should see fewer behavior issues and post-pandemic anxiety in brick-and-mortar schools as kids settle into their normal routines, receive mental health support and resources, and tap into their natural ability to adapt to whatever comes their way.
How Virtual Learning Can Support Students with Anxiety Disorders
Students who attend virtual school tend to feel more in control of their social interactions, which can help symptoms of social anxiety. For instance, at Connections Academy® schools, students can socialize within the virtual classroom through online classroom discussions and LiveLesson® sessions, which can remove the focus on physical appearance or acceptance by peers that leads to kids with social anxiety. They can also choose to socialize at in-person events such as field trips and school programs, which is a fantastic way to practice social skills.
School staff can support students who are experiencing social anxiety or reentry anxiety by being sensitive to their needs. Establish clear rules against bullying, harassment, and discrimination to ensure students feel safe. Assign groups or pairs instead of allowing students to choose partners for themselves, to ensure that nobody feels excluded. Be sure to reward participation and encourage those who are reluctant to participate without shaming those who choose not to participate. Kids who feel safe in their learning environment are less likely to feel anxious.
How to Support Kids with Social Anxiety
Here are some ways you can help your child manage symptoms of social anxiety:
- Teach your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided imagery (imagine a fun adventure), or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Practice reframing; find a way to turn a negative thought into a positive one.
- Teach problem-solving skills and how to identify the triggers that cause their anxiety.
- Work on friendship skills, such as starting conversations, being a good listener, and asking questions.
- Avoid too much technology. While it can be just as fulfilling to socialize with people virtually, it’s easy to use technology to avoid social situations. It’s best to try to find a healthy balance by making both in-person and virtual connections.
Be sure to get help if you think your child has social anxiety. Left untreated, social anxiety can control their life. It can lead to depression, low self-esteem, drug or alcohol abuse, and trouble in careers and relationships. Social Anxiety Disorder is often treated through behavioral therapy, which helps kids learn to manage their emotions and to develop coping skills they can use their entire lives.
Connections Academy offers online licensed school counselors for every student. Reach out to your school counselor or consult with a local mental health expert if your child shows signs of social anxiety.