A child who is described as “shy” may have trouble speaking up in school, talking with adults not familiar to them, and even making friends with peers. These behaviors all seem to be characteristic of garden-variety shyness. But how do you know if a child is more than shy, if their inability to communicate with others becomes so extreme that it interferes with their functioning in daily life?
Social anxiety — an officially recognized psychiatric disorder — can look a lot like shyness, and it can be hard to know when a child is beyond shy and needs the help of a professional mental health provider. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), used by mental health professionals, states that the symptoms of social anxiety disorder must be present for six months or more in order for a diagnosis to be made.
The 10 signs that a child might have anxiety rather than simple shyness involve not only the symptoms but also their intensity and their tendency to interrupt a child’s normal functioning.
1. Fear Of Embarrassment
A person with social anxiety experiences actual fear when confronted with a social situation. They may fear that others will view them critically and that they will somehow embarrass themselves in front of others. Being in a social setting can feel like being on display or performing.
2. Intensity Of The Fear
The fear of social situations can hit an anxious person hard: they may experience such physical symptoms as a racing heart, dry mouth, sweaty palms, trembling, and shaky voice. The mind and the body are intertwined when it comes to anxiety.
3. Anxiety Or Panic Attacks
The anxious person’s feelings of fear about a social situation can escalate to the point that they experience an anxiety attack or panic attack. These kinds of attacks can be frightening. They can involve such intense physical symptoms as heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea. Many people having a panic attack feel as if they are having a heart attack.
4. Awareness Of The Fear Being Out Of Proportion To The Trigger
The child with anxiety may be fully aware that their feelings of fear about going to a social gathering like a birthday party are irrational, but they are unable to control them nonetheless.
5. Avoidance Of Situations Causing Fear
Children with extreme social anxiety often avoid the situations that cause their fears. School is often a setting that generates fears in the anxious child, as it places demands on the child to perform and to engage with others at a level that may feel overwhelming.
6. Interference With Normal Life
For children, going to school is a part of everyday life. If severe anxiety prevents a child from attending school, the child isn’t able to access an education or socialize with peers, both of which are important facets of a so-called “normal” life.
7. Withdrawal From Social Activities
Aside from missing school, avoiding other typical childhood social activities such as parties, playdates, and extracurricular activities like clubs and sports can leave the anxious child feeling alone and frustrated by the inability to connect with others.
8. Six Or More Months Of Symptoms
In order for social anxiety to be diagnosed, the symptoms must have been present and have interfered with the child’s functioning for six or more months. This time frame shows that anxiety is more about how the child is “hardwired” than about avoiding certain uncomfortable situations. Anxiety is more pervasive and persistent than temporary bouts of insecurity or shyness.
9. No Other Medical Reasons For The Fears And Avoidance
A doctor could rule out the impact of medications the child might be taking, or any other co-occurring conditions, on the child’s behavior.
10. Your Gut Tells You It’s More Than Simple Shyness
Those who are closest to a child with anxiety know that child best, and their intuition may tell them long before symptoms become intense and debilitating that the child is affected by a condition more intense and pervasive than shyness. Trust your gut. If your child seems to be hindered from engaging successfully with the world, check with your pediatrician.
Featured photo credit: AngelsWings via imcreator.com