By Dr. Robert Yeilding, PsyD

Anxiety is one of the most common difficulties that can rapidly increase during the teen years. Social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by a persistent fear of social situations in which your teen is worried about being judged, scrutinized, or embarrassed in front of others occurs in approximately 9% of adolescents. It is often a challenge that can go years before being identified and treated effectively with evidence-based care such as with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

It can often be difficult to decipher if social anxiety is an underlying concern, and when to do something about it. If you already identified social anxiety and initiated effective therapy for your teen, then you have taken a huge step to help improve their self-esteem and relationships. Supporting your teen while they are actively in treatment can be a challenge…the points below can serve as a helpful guide.

Learn what social anxiety looks like for your teen:

The first step in responding effectively to your teen with social anxiety is to understand when it is present and what it looks like for them. People with social anxiety often unintentionally give off signals that they may be upset, not caring, withdrawn, or otherwise which can elicit responses from you that feed into them feeling judged or out of place. Spend time identifying with your teen and/or their therapist how to spot their unique signs to help you re-interpret what is happening and have a plan of how to best respond (hint: typically, not overly focusing on it).

Support, normalize, re-focus:

Helping your teen’s recovery from social anxiety can often feel like a bit of a balancing act. One the one hand, you want to offer validation of their feelings and not fall into invalidating or dismissive responses i.e. “Don’t be shy” or “You’re too quiet”. On the other hand, you want to simply normalize that anxiety is a
common feeling, and then re-focus and engage back to what’s happening in the moment. This second piece can be tricky to not fall into focusing too much on the anxiety when you spot it (which can just contribute to more self-consciousness), or by offering too much reassurance which is unhelpful in the long run.

It might get a little awkward:

Your teens progress with social anxiety treatment will entail them learning to change the way they typically avoid or engage in “safety behaviors” to get through social interactions. Often, you as a parent may have been shaped into or unintentionally offer some of these social crutches. For example, if you respond for your teen in a social interaction when you sense they are uncomfortable, or if you quickly offer a “cover” statement to diffuse any social discomfort i.e. “he’s tired today.” In order for new learning and practice to occur, we all need to step back from these ultimately unhelpful coping habits. Yes, this might mean longer silences, minimal verbal responses, or a bit of awkwardness in social situations. This is a good opportunity for you, just like your teen, to see these little mishaps aren’t catastrophic, and to practice tolerating these moments of discomfort to promote long-term growth.

Exposure accountability

One of the most effective interventions your teen will be doing in CBT is known as exposure, or behavioral experiments, in which they will be continuously facing their feared social situations. Communicating with your teens therapist to understand the purpose for these interventions, and to stay up to date on what their current practice goals are is vital. Helping as needed with accountability and follow-through on this front is essential to facilitating progress.

The car ride home:

One of the most difficult moments for those who struggle with social anxiety often occurs after social situations. Your teen may be prone to dwell on their perceived shortcomings of the interaction or go down a “shame spiral” of what others might be thinking of them. Here it can be helpful to directly guide them to label when this negative filter is activated. You can prompt them to shift their thinking to remember what other parts of the interaction went just fine, what a more balanced view of the interaction overall is, and how to then leave it in the past and come back to what’s next in the day to focus on.

As you can see in the points above, there is a huge opportunity for you as parents to help facilitate your teen’s progress towards their therapy goals for social anxiety. It can also require patience, your own flexibility, and openness to shifting habits and ways of responding with your teen to help everyone move towards more balance and confidence. Continue reading here for further information on social anxiety and CBT.

Robert Yeilding, PsyD, A-CBT

About the Author

Dr. Robert Yeilding, PsyD
Dr. Robert Yeilding, PsyD
Dr. Yeilding earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. He is a Diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, and he currently serves as a board member for the National Social Anxiety Center, which is dedicated to fostering evidence-based treatment for social anxiety. Dr. Yeilding specializes in helping adults and adolescents with depressive and anxiety disorders, specializing in treating social anxiety, insomnia, panic disorder, OCD, and managing and finding growth in life transitions. He uses Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness strategies, proven strategies that provide results.

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