Social phobia is a condition that often manifests at a young age. Unfortunately, parents are usually unprepared when their sons or daughters first begin to show symptoms of apparently unreasonable or exaggerated fear when in the presence of other people, and they may not have a clear understanding of what they are seeing or have the slightest idea about how to handle it. Tragically, if children who are showing a tendency toward social phobia are forced to confront situations that they find overwhelming, the problem can get much worse before it gets better—and yet this is how many parents respond to the behavior of socially phobic children, believing that their kids will quickly get over their fears if they are compelled to face what they dread the most.
Moms and Dads who choose this approach may not realize they are damaging their sons and daughters by refusing to acknowledge their feelings, but this is exactly what they are doing. From the standpoint of the child, there is no such thing as a reasonable fear or an unreasonable fear—there is only fear, raw, unfiltered, and existential, and if a child is thrown into a situation that provokes deep anxiety without any preparation or avenue of escape their fears will be reinforced and become more deeply entrenched.
Types of Fears
Some fears, while regrettable, do not necessarily impact life in any significant way. A fear of deep water or heights or spiders might prevent a person from practicing certain activities from which she could benefit, but she will still be able to live a fully productive and satisfying life in most instances. But if a fear of people and social situations is allowed to run out of control, or is made stronger by the well-meaning but wrong-headed actions of parents or other influential adults such as teachers, ministers, youth organizers, etc., the future consequences can be severe.
Besides pushing their children into situations for which they are not ready, the other mistake that parents sometimes make is to simply dismiss their kids’ behavior and actions by rationalizing and telling everyone that “she’s just shy.” This happens quite often with girls in particular, since shyness has traditionally been seen as more acceptable, less problematic, and even natural in women.
But in fact, there is really no such thing as being ‘just shy’. Shyness is a poorly conceived concept that glosses over and minimizes the actual condition, which is social phobia. If left unaddressed, excessive fear of social situations will cause adverse affects and lead to much suffering and frustration, and a girl with social phobia who has been abandoned to her fates based on the idea that her “shyness” is somehow natural or no big deal may be destined to experience significant hardships throughout her life.
The Key to Success: Taking the Gradual Approach
Kids showing symptoms of social phobia do need to be exposed to people, and they should not be allowed to habitually avoid situations where two-way communication will be required. But they should always be exposed to settings that cause them to feel discomfort gradually, in incrementally-increasing doses and with Mom or Dad there to back them up at first if at all possible. Social phobia should be acknowledged as something real and important, and its existence should be taken into account when planning the activities of children who are clearly uncomfortable in social situations.
This does not mean that parents are in any way admitting defeat. On the contrary, it only means that they accept social phobia as a part of the equation in their children’s lives and understand that it must be dealt with realistically one day at a time. It shows they realize that pushing their kids too far too fast will inevitably cause more harm than good, and that they know they must be patient when attempting to help their sons and daughters overcome their anxieties. Adopting this attitude shows that parents respect their kids and accept their feelings as entirely legitimate, and this is a message that socially phobic children really need to hear as they prepare to do battle against a foe that is scarier than any ghosts lurking in the closet or monsters hiding under the bed.
Introducing children who demonstrate symptoms of social phobia to the settings that cause them stress in small doses, and with parents present whenever possible, will help boys and girls progressively learn how to be more comfortable around people. But parents also need to talk about social phobia with their fearful sons and daughters openly and honestly, to let them know that they understand what is going on and to reassure them that their fears are not something to be ashamed of. Kids crave their parents’ unconditional love and support in all circumstances, and it is especially important for the socially phobic child to know she won’t be entering the lion’s den alone.
It is Never Too Late
If you are the mother of a child who is showing signs of social anxiety, you can help her learn how to cope with her feelings. But if you are the daughter of parents who didn’t understand your social phobia and didn’t give you the kind of help you needed because they didn’t know how to react, it is never too late to change your life for the better.
Even if you are an adult struggling with this problem, the remedy remains the same. First, you must gradually expose yourself to situations that scare you—in the company of people you trust if at all possible. Let things progress slowly, and know that they will get better if you take this approach and stick to it. You have to respect your social phobia, you don’t want to deny it or hide from it, but you shouldn’t surrender to it either—trust in yourself and your ability to change, and let your faith guide you to exciting new vistas. Just as parents who are aware can make a positive impact in the life of a socially phobic child, so too can the socially phobic adult improve her life by caring for and nurturing herself, the way her parents would have done so long ago if only they had known how to react to behavior they didn’t understand.