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How to Help Children Cope with Shyness and Social Anxiety

Photo by: USAG- Humphreys via Flickr


Every school year, children are always excited and worried about the next academic season. They are excited about seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and rising to the higher grade levels. But they also feel worried about the people in their class, about classmates liking them or not, and about the teachers involved throughout the year. Extreme worrying can be associated with both shyness and social anxiety in children.

For every eight kids, one has an anxiety disorder that can cause poor academic performance if left untreated. According to the Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report, about 80 percent of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment. Social anxiety disorder is a severe form of shyness that affects the person’s functional aspect. Shyness is a personality trait characterized by the feeling of apprehension, awkwardness, and lack of comfort when around people.



Social anxiety disorder or SAD typically begins in early adolescence, but it may also start during elementary years. The disorder develops by repeated exposure to embarrassing or stressful situations without the proper way to overcome the effects. Aside from low school performance, SAD can also affect self-confidence, self-esteem, ability to develop friendships, and depression.

In Canada, about four percent of Canadians age 15 to 24 years old reported having a social anxiety disorder. The 75 percent of people with SAD said that the problem began between the ages 8 to 15 years old. In Australia, around 2.5 percent of young people meet the criteria for SAD in a given 12-month period. But what circumstances and factors truly cause and aggravate anxiety in children?



The root cause is shyness and shyness develop from numerous causes, such as learned behavior and family relationships:

- Genetics: Children can inherit shyness if at least one of the parents possesses the personality trait.

- Personality: Infants who have been intimidated or scared often when growing up can develop a shy or timid personality. Some children may also have very sensitive emotions that cause them to pull away from people if teased.

- Relationships: Parenting is a major contributor to shyness among children. Inconsistent care from parents or weak attachment to parents make children prone to both anxiety and shy personality. Overprotecting parenting may lead their children to fear many things that can affect socialization.

- Interaction: Isolation of children from people grow up with diminished or nonexistent social skills. They are prone to develop fear around strangers and awkwardness in social gatherings.

- Criticism: Criticism has two basic forms – constructive and destructive. Destructive or harsh criticism from family members is an act of bullying, and victims of such treatment can develop shyness.

- Failure: The failure to accomplish things leads to the criticism of that failure. When parents expect too much from their child, it creates a ball of internal pressure that burdens the child. If the child fails, the parents make them feel bad about being unable to measure up to their expectations. The cycle leads to fear of failure in the form of shyness.



Some young children have unlucky experiences in school, such as standing in front of the class, getting into trouble, and attempting to join the playground ruled by “hierarchies.” Unlucky experiences can also conjure negative thoughts in their minds, such as “I am going to say something stupid” or “They will not like me.” As the shyness and self-consciousness grow, anxiety develops until it becomes a social anxiety disorder, especially if nobody reaches out. That person with SAD will suffer the following behavioral changes and health symptoms:

- Emotional changes including anger, fear, helplessness, and sadness.

- Behavioral changes including avoidance, isolation, tantrums, mumbling, and declining invitations to events.

- Physical changes including extreme blushing if complemented or teased, shaking and sweating, muscle tension, and irritability.

Parents can help prevent social anxiety disorder in their children by lending them the necessary amount of guidance, support, and protection. Lacking or excessive parental guidance and control cause negative effects on children. Parents need both parental skills and a good sense of judgment when dealing with a child’s SAD. Challenging their child’s anxiety is one gentle way to help them build confidence and gradually face their fears. For instance, a child afraid to show their written poems and stories may be challenged to let one or two other kids, who are considered safe, to read them.

For the parents who are overprotective, a sustaining control and avoidance to intervene habitually can help the child adapt to their fears. For example, if the child is being challenged by SAD during a solo musical performance, let them handle the situation. Instead of jumping in, give them a hint of support to boost their confidence. If they leave the stage, follow them immediately. Give comfort and show your support to make them know they are not alone in dealing with anxiety.

If the situation persists, consulting a therapist is not a bad option. But the therapist may need a gentle approach when opening to a child. Some children do not like the idea of getting a “shrink” even if they want to just to avoid being teased or bullied by others.

[메디컬리포트=Ralph Chen 기자]

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