This is an easy to read guide for parents who are raising teenagers they suspect have one of the following problems:
- Social Awkwardness
- Social Anxiety
(If you’re a teenager yourself you will still get valuable advice and knowledge from this guide but be aware that it is written for an audience of parents in mind and you might want to check out some of my other articles when you’re done with this one.)
As a parent of a teenager you have been responsible for raising your child for over a decade now. You’ve seen them at their best and at their worst. And you’ve watched with pride as they’ve progressed and developed as adults.
But you’ve noticed something is wrong.
For some reason your teenager just isn’t growing as fast as he should socially. He might have always been a late bloomer or perhaps these problems are something that you’ve just begun to be aware of.
Regardless here are a few symptoms your teenager may have:
- Lack of friends
- No dating life
- Trouble getting along with other people
- Quiet around other people
- Prone to inappropriate outbursts
Whether or not the words “social anxiety” have yet to enter your mind you do know with certainty that your teenager is in trouble.
Social Anxiety is difficult to conquer but it can be done through the sustained effort on the part of your teen and your unconditional support. By educating yourself and then teaching your teenager you can guide them through this difficult portion of their life and into an adulthood of healthy relationships.
The Mechanics of Social Anxiety
Everyone is shy or embarrassed or nervous sometimes. But for a small segment of the population these feelings of shyness and nervousness build into a powerful fear known as social anxiety.
The people suffering from this condition may appear to be normal most of the time or they may be total shut-ins. There is a wide spectrum. But what is common to all cases is a fear of social interaction.
The anxiety of extreme shyness is triggered when the body feels it is about to come under attack. Our internal fight or flight response is activated and our body prepares for the threat by flooding us with chemicals that increase our heartbeat, make us sweat, and get us ready for action.
When in this state of fight or flight we feel real fear that manifests as extreme shyness- or social anxiety.
In short social anxiety is a protection mechanism.
Don’t be tempted to consider a protection mechanism against social interaction silly. In our society the success of our social interactions determine our success with friends, love, and wealth. If we become convinced that social interactions will go badly no matter what then fear is a deeply rational reaction.
The purpose of the fear is to make us run away from bad social situations. And that is indeed what usually happens. Avoidance of social situations is how most people with social anxiety live. They stay quiet in public and don’t go out unless they have to.
Past Experiences Dictate Present Perceptions
Why do the people who suffer from social anxiety fear danger from social interaction? Most people are quite fine interacting with one another and usually the interactions turn out fine.
Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere social anxiety does not appear to be based on biology or genetics. Your child was not born with it and they don’t have to live with it.
Instead social anxiety is simply something they are suffering from right now. It can be controlled and eventually gotten rid of. I know because as a teenager and young adult I had social anxiety. Today I live free from its effects.
The key to understanding social anxiety is to realize that our previous life experiences make up our perception of the world today.
If we were burnt by placing our finger into a flame yesterday we would feel fear if someone lit a flame close to us today.
The same goes with social anxiety. There are two types of past experiences that inform social anxiety:
- Negative Experience: Your child has had a negative social experience in the past that has taught him that they are to be avoided.
- Lack Of Experience: A lack of experience will make your child self-conscious and fearful of making a mistake because he lacks social skills.
Of course a lack of experience can quickly lead to a negative experience. Which just makes the problem worse.
It doesn’t really matter which of these two types of past experiences is the basis of your teenagers social awkwardness. What matters is that we can use this understanding to help your teenager get over their social anxiety and start building social connections.
And there is not a moment to lose.
The Costs of Social Avoidance
Someone who lives with social anxiety can feel as if they are living a kind of half-life. They walk through the world but never really feel fully apart of it. They see or read about certain human experiences and can’t imagine themselves sharing them.
There are many costs of social avoidance:
- Falling Behind In School
- Not Getting The Most Out Of School
- Missing The Chance To Learn New Things and Experiences
- Missing The Chance To Share Talents
If your teenager is avoiding social interactions then they’re at risk of missing a large part of the potential of a young life. And they’re in danger of not advancing their skills, career, and academics since they’ll tend to avoid clubs, special opportunities, and extracurriculars.
How NOT To Help Your Teenager
Social Anxiety can be overcome. The fact that your teenager has parents that not only care about him enough that they’ve noticed the problem but they’re concerned enough to begin researching is a huge plus to the odds of success.
But as a parent you need to be made aware of certain things you may accidentally do that may close your teenager off from you or make things worse.
An extremely common motivator for the fear of social anxiety comes from strong self-consciousness. People with social anxiety believe that they should just avoid social interactions because other people are just too much better than they are.
They remove themselves from social interactions before others can reject them.
Because of this you must not criticize them or say negative things to them. You will not produce any results with criticism, you’ll just validate their belief that they’re worthless.
Criticism and anger will just lead to negative feelings. It may make you feel as if you’re doing something but you won’t get any results.
And on a similar note don’t nag them.
Don’t Discount Their Feelings When They Open Up
When I wrote above that many people with social anxiety felt as if they were worthless or not worthy of social experiences your reaction might have been to scoff and say:
“That’s not my daughter! She’s smart, beautiful, and has everything going for her! There’s no way that she thinks she’s worthless.”
Well I’m sorry to tell you: she might just think she’s worthless.
Feelings of low self-esteem, self-consciousness, and depression are not based on a rational calculation of the positives and negatives about one’s life. Someone could be a millionaire and a genius and a model and still be depressed.
If your teenager opens up to you and confesses their feelings, whether they are feelings of self-esteem or something else, you must not invalidate their feelings by telling them that they’re foolish for feeling that way. Or by saying that they’ve got it better than so many other people.
Again: it will make you feel better in the short term to be “right” but it’s not going to help your teenager.
Instead you have to validate their feelings, tell them that it’s okay to feel the way they do, and try to understand their perspective. By doing this not only do you help them work through their feelings by speaking with you but you encourage further emotional transparency from them.
Don’t Make It About You
Some parents project themselves into their children and try to live a second life through their kid. This is a recipe for disaster.
Be careful that you’re not pushing your own frustrations about your own personal failings (social or otherwise) onto your children.
And don’t expect too much. Maybe your teenager is just someone who values their own time to work on their own hobbies. They may not live up to the fantasy in your head of a star Quarterback who is a hit at parties. Being concerned that your child is having trouble making friends is valid. Trying to make them fit an image in your head is not.
Finally don’t base your value as a parent on this one issue. The fact that you child is currently suffering from social anxiety is probably not your fault. Don’t treat it like it is. This is about helping your teenager as best as you can because you want the best life for them, not because you want to be seen as a “good parent”.
How To Help Your Teenager Get Over Social Anxiety In 3 Steps
#1. Let Them Go
The first step whenever trying to solve any problem is to wait a little while to see if it resolves by itself. You’ll start helping your teenager by doing just that.
When I was a teenager my parents were extremely overprotective. I didn’t attend a single party (birthday or otherwise) until I was in college. Because of this I had no social skills and I didn’t know how to interact with people.
Maybe you aren’t as overprotective as my parents were. But do you allow your teenager the freedom to go off by himself with friends? Do you let him stay out reasonably late? Go away with friends for a week long camping trip?
Start by loosening the chains. Nothing is going to happen to your teenager. Our society is incredibly safe.
(Do you want to go above and beyond? You can increase your teenager’s freedom by allowing him to use your car whenever you’re not using it.)
#2. Bring Up Social Anxiety Once
If you’ve done step one already and your teenager is still having problems or is avoiding going out then it’s time to talk to them.
Remember what I wrote above. Don’t criticize or nag. Don’t make it about you.
When you talk to your teenager do so one on one and in a quiet and private space. Does your teenager have a stronger bond with you or your spouse? Have that person go and have the talk and don’t let personal feelings of jealousy get in the way.
When you talk to your teenager begin by asking if everything is okay at school and with friends. Mention the symptoms (such as lack of friends) that you’ve been noticing. Be gentle and generous.
Bring up the term “social anxiety” and ask them if they are familiar with it. Ask them if it might apply to their life.
Suggest a resource for them to read such as this website.
End the conversation by asking if there is anything that you or your spouse can do to help. Let your teenager know that you’re there for them and are proud of them. Tell them that you’re always available to continue the conversation if they want to in the future. Assure them they don’t have to decide now.
Don’t initiate this conversation again. Don’t nag them about it. Don’t mention it. It will not produce any results to do so. When your teenager is ready to continue and open up they will come to you.
#3. Begin Social Experiences
Make a new family tradition of attending and taking part in social events and new experiences.
Since social anxiety is based on either negative social experiences in the past or a lack of social experiences your strategy will be to give your teenager a lot of different positive social experiences in order to fill in the gaps.
Here are some examples:
- Sports Team
- Overseas trip with other young people
The idea here is to expose your teenager to social experiences. The more positive social experiences they have the less fear of the unknown they’ll be vulnerable to.
This is a better method than merely pushing them to hang out with people. If you just lead them to a social experience and let them be most of the time they’ll be drawn into conversation and interaction with the people around them.
Don’t even hint that the experience is because you suspect they have social anxiety and don’t say that you’re all going so that they can practice interacting with people. That will just make them self-conscious and defeat the entire purpose.
Most importantly let your teenager go off on his own. Even if he’s just going to hang out on the beach by himself let him do that. For example if you’re going on some camping trip don’t go along with your teenager if he goes to some group event.
If you tell him to join a sports team then don’t hang around and watch. Don’t interfere if his beginning is a little rough. Let him find a role in the social group. Only step in if severe bullying is going on.
Now here is the most important component of this step:
At first your teenager is going to continue to act that same way as before. This is to be expected. Magical change does not happen overnight.
You need to make these social experiences a regular thing. You need to establish a regular routine where your teenager goes out and interacts with people. This is why something like a sports team is such a great idea. A sports team has regular practices every week.
Remember you’re countering years of social experiences (or their lack). This countering does not happen in a day or a week. It may take months to see any improvement.
If you’re just planning to organize one, or two, or ten social experiences and then give up then you might as well not try at all. This needs to be an ongoing thing.
I understand that most people don’t have the time to devote such time and resources to setting up teenage social experiences. But there are all sorts of organizations and clubs willing to help. Sports teams, volunteer groups, part-time jobs, and many other social experiences just require you to make the first push. Afterwords all you have to do is make sure your teen attends.
And since there are so many varieties of experiences out there you don’t have to force your teen to keep attending one he doesn’t want. If he’s not an athlete but likes painting then enrol him in painting classes.
If you suspect that your teenager has social anxiety or is struggling with social awkwardness then you’ll no doubt want to help.
Let’s review some of the most important advice from this article:
- Social anxiety is a protection mechanism
- If your teenager has social anxiety then his body is experiencing fear of social interactions
- This fear can be triggered by negative past social experiences or lack of past social experiences.
- Avoidance is the primary response to feelings of social anxiety
- It can lead to a severally stunted life that causes the sufferer to miss out on the best aspects of life
- People with social anxiety remove themselves from social interactions before others can reject them
- Criticism won’t give you any results and will just make your teen feel worse
- Don’t discount or wave away their concerns or fears if they open up to you. Take them seriously.
- Don’t make it about you.
- Follow the three steps:
- Step One: Let them go, and increase their freedom. Sometimes social problems resolve on their own once you stop meddling.
- Step Two: Have a talk with them about social anxiety and let them know you’re there for them. Recommend resources like this website.
- Step Three: Introduce them to social experiences.
- Establish a routine. Only through constant routine is any change made.