The relaxation of federal and state mandates, allowing people to leave their social bubbles, is being met with mixed emotions. The shelter-in-place orders have been comforting to people who may not enjoy social gatherings, particularly children who experience anxiety in social environments such as at school. These kids have welcomed virtual learning and the opportunity to remain at home and behind the zoom cameras because the school milieu is a scary place for some children.
Parents are discovering that their children are not excited about returning to in-person learning. Some children are blatantly refusing to return to school. One young client told me that returning to the classroom “would be the death of him.” Another client shared that she does not enjoy being with more than two people at a time. For some children, the closing and now opening of schools has ignited social anxiety that some kids may experience when engaging in social activities.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear in social settings. SAD sufferers fear being judged or scrutinized by others. School settings epitomize a social milieu where teachers and other students are appraising children. Symptoms and signs of social anxiety are physical and emotional and may come and go. After over a year of virtual learning, returning to in-person learning will be stressful as students, parents, and teachers adapt to the return to normalcy. Triggers for social anxiety disorder include:
• Eating in front of other people.
• Speaking in public.
• Being the center of attention.
• Talking to strangers.
• Meeting new people.
• Meeting people’s eyes.
• Using public restrooms.
These triggers are all part of school attendance. If a child adamantly refuses to return to school, parents should not rule out social anxiety disorder. The diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, as outlined in the DSM-5, includes marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others lasting for six months or more.
The causes of the social disorder result from genetics and temperament. However, research has shown that social anxiety disorder in children results from many factors including, excessive social isolation; a childhood with parents who are overprotective, controlling, restrictive, or anxious; bullying; child abuse, including verbal, physical, or sexual; having parents who dismiss social anxiety; family discord; excessive moving; and being discriminated in their school environment.
Parents who suspect that their children may be suffering from social anxiety disorder should consult with a therapist to rule out other mental health issues. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective type of psychotherapy for anxiety, and it can be equally effective when conducted individually or in groups. In exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy, you gradually work up to facing the situations you fear most. Remember, parents do the best they can at any given time, with the resources they have. Learning about social anxiety disorder will help with addressing the symptoms.
Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV and V https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519712/table/ch3.t12/
Rauch, J. (2017). What causes social anxiety? https://www.talkspace.com/blog/what-causes-social-anxiety/
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.