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Social Anxiety: Important Signs Every Parent Should Know
by Patrick McGrath, Ph.D.

Social anxiety is the third largest psychological problem in the United States today, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. The debilitating condition affects 5.3 million Americans in any given year. And, it hits children - hard.

The problem is that social anxiety is often overlooked - or mistaken for other conditions such as shyness, a personality disorder or depression.

As the school year progresses, more and more children will start to exhibit signs of social anxiety. Children with social anxiety often fight their parents tooth and nail to stay home from school. Some young children will kick, scream and bite - just to get out of going to school. The anxiety they feel in school far outweighs any potential consequence from their parents.

Another sign of social anxiety is avoiding activities that require personal interaction. For example, a child might spend the lunch hour in the library with a book, instead of in the cafeteria with schoolmates. Or, a child might go to class but never raise her hand to participate in class discussions.

Grades can be an indicator of school-based anxiety. Some children will choose to fail, instead of receiving any grade other than an "A". These students may be very bright and have the ability to learn and recall the information that is presented. Yet, they would rather not do any schoolwork and fail, instead of receiving a "B" or "C". This failure is not always due to stubbornness, laziness, or a sudden lack of comprehension - it may be due to anxiety.

Children or adolescents may be "ill" on days that are anxiety provoking, such as exam days or days when they have to give a presentation to the class. Or, they may avoid taking certain classes that require interaction and intense evaluation. Students have changed majors in college to avoid certain class requirements such as making speeches for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in public.

If your child appears to be experiencing school-based anxiety, be sure to meet with the school counselor to discuss your observations. Utilize any tools that the counselor may offer to reintegrate your child back into the school environment.

For school refusal, the counselor may suggest setting up your home like a classroom. If a student develops a pattern of refusing to go to school, follow a typical school day at home. Get your child out of bed and have him work on school material at a table or desk. There is to be no playing, no snacks, and no television. Have your child eat lunch within the same time period as he would at school. Do not allow for extracurricular activities for the day - if your child was too ill to go to school, then she is too ill to play in the band concert as well.

If you need further assistance, mental health therapists can provide many helpful behavioral skills. For example, exposure and response prevention is one type of therapy that may help your child to slowly return to situations that have provoked a great deal of anxiety. Your child will learn skills for coping with the event and managing his anxiety by slowly facing her fears and not avoiding them or needing a great deal of reassurance to complete tasks.

Anxiety is often an underlying reason for academic problems, refusing to go to school, and other related social issues. The earlier you deal with the anxiety, the easier it will be to treat. Your child doesn't have to suffer with this fear and isolation. Seek help as soon as possible - it's only a phone call away.

Patrick McGrath, PhD is Clinical Manager of Anxiety Services for Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward. For more information about Linden Oaks' comprehensive mental health services for children and adolescents, please call (630) 646-8800 and for Anxiety Services, call (630) 305-5825.


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