Social Anxiety Disorder or Just Shy?

Photo of blond female teen with her head down and her left hand reaching for her ponytail thereby obscuring her face. This photo represents a teen with social anxiety who could use some online therapy in Illinois or Florida for social anxiety disorder.

You’ve likely noticed how hesitant your child is to make friends or talk to other kids in class. Perhaps they dread conversations with adults and avoid eye contact at all costs. Is your child being shy or is something else going on?

As a parent, it can be hard to know whether your child has social anxiety disorder (SAD) or is simply shy and reserved. Both can be challenging in terms of how your child interacts with their world.

But for a child with social anxiety disorder, life can feel completely overwhelming especially when they don’t know what’s wrong or how to cope.

Social Anxiety Can Affect Kids and Teens Differently

What is social anxiety disorder? It’s a disorder that involves an intense fear or phobia of social and performance situations. It is often rooted in fear of judgement.

It’s important to remember that every child is unique and reacts to things differently. When anxious, some kids exhibit physical symptoms like nausea, sweating, blushing, shaky voice or difficulty speaking, and others experience their anxiety more beneath the surface, with panicked thoughts that they might not express.

And since social anxiety is rooted in fear of people’s opinion of them, it’s common for kids and teens to work hard at hiding their symptoms. They definitely don’t want to bring more attention (and potential criticism) on themselves.

It’s possible that your child may be experiencing social anxiety if you notice:

  • Your child avoiding social settings
  • Having difficulty meeting other children
  • Clinging to familiar people
  • Intense dread of going to school or clubs
  • Angry outbursts surrounding events or certain situations

Distinguishing between social anxiety disorder and shyness

The confusion between social anxiety disorder and shyness is common, but the difference is rooted in the why behind their actions. 

Shyness in itself is not a problem. Many shy children have satisfying, long-term friendships with others and live happy and fulfilled lives. Shyness is an issue only when it prevents your child from engaging in enjoyable events such as parties, or from making lasting friendships. If that’s the case, it may be time to seek help.

It’s normal for kids to be nervous about new experiences, especially when these situations or events are social. A piano recital, football tryouts, or giving a speech at school can all lead to feeling stressed and nervous. Many kids who are shy however, do not have negative feelings and can warm up to people and situations eventually. Your child may not like being the center of attention, but they can get through it. Social situations do not cause them distress.

Kids experiencing social anxiety, however, usually try to avoid social settings altogether. Fear of what other kids will think of them is greater than their desire or need to be involved. Even if they love playing a sport at home, they may not think it’s worth it to play on a team and risk any judgement.

Signs of Social Anxiety to Watch for in Your Anxious Kid or Teen

Common symptoms of social anxiety disorder in school-aged children:

  • Fear of:
    • reading aloud or answering questions in class
    • talking to other kids
    • being in front of the class
    • speaking to adults
    • musical or athletic performance activities
    • ordering food in a restaurant
    • attending birthday parties
    • having friends visit
  • Worry about being judged by others
  • Refusal to participate in activities or school
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and nausea.

Although most teenagers go through periods of normal anxiety related to changes during adolescence, those with social anxiety disorder experience fear that is out of proportion to the situations they face.

Common symptoms of social anxiety disorder in teens:

  • is quiet
  • keeps to him/herself
  • is hesitant
  • becomes more withdrawn if encouraged to talk
  • fears being embarrassed or humiliated
  • is passive
  • crosses his/her arms
  • is overly concerned about negative evaluation
  • keeps his/her head down
  • displays few facial expressions
  • has nervous habits such as hair twirling or fidgeting
  • potentially does poorly in school
  • doesn’t raise his/her hand in class
  • avoids classmates outside class
  • fears performing in front of others/public speaking
  • fears speaking up in class
  • is uncomfortable in the spotlight
  • sits alone in the library or cafeteria
  • is afraid to ask the teacher for help
  • is afraid to walk into class late
  • may refuse to go to school or drop out
  • is uncomfortable in group settings
  • has few friends
  • is afraid to start or participate in conversations
  • avoids eye contact
  • is afraid to ask others to get together
  • speaks softly or mumbles
  • is afraid to call others
  • appears to always be “on the fringes”
  • reveals little about him/herself when talking to others

3 Ways to Help Your Socially Anxious Child

Social anxiety may be caused by all kinds of factors – genetic, environmental, societal, and brain/biological. Some parents blame themselves, but it’s usually a combination of things that cause the disorder. The most important thing you can do is support your child and help them move forward.

Here are three simple and helpful ways you can support your child:

Prepare your child in advance for situations that make them feel worried or fearful. Role play the situation at home and practice things they can do to make it easier.

Encourage your child to do some “detective thinking”. For example, if they think that everyone will laugh at them if they answer a question in class, get them to ask questions like “What’s the evidence they’ll laugh?” or “How do I know?” “What if they don’t?”

Empathize with your child about times you’ve felt anxious in social situations and how you’ve faced your fears. You might say, “I often get nervous when meeting new people too”. This will help them understand that it’s OK to talk about anxious feelings. They’ll also feel that you understand and support them.

Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Social Anxiety in Illinois and now Florida!

If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, there is hope! Anxiety is highly treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.

Using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, I help kids and teens reduce their anxiety and build resilience so they can become a happier, more confident version of themselves.

And kids love being able to receive counseling from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Studies have consistently proven that online therapy delivers equal results to in-office counseling.

As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.

Helena Madsen, MA, LCPC is the founder of Briefly Counseling. I specialize in providing online short-term anxiety treatment for kids and teens ages 7 – 18 as well as Christian counseling.

Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.

And effective 2024, I am now licensed in Florida! For parents in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Destin, Crestview, Coral Gables, Weston, Parkland, Naples, Marco Island, and Pinecrest, I have immediate openings.

Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.