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Severe social anxiety

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I am concerned about my 13 year old son who has just started high school this year and he says he has no friends and suffers from quite a lot from social anxiety. He refuses to purchase anything from shops and avoids social interactions wherever possible. He has been like this most of his life and I am unsure what I can do? 

Hi @JJL24,

I know that your post about this was a while ago, but I wanted to respond because it sounds like you and your son have been living with this for a while, and also because anxiety is a really common experience and a lot of parents wonder how they can support their children with it. I hope my response will be relevant to you and to other parents who might be reading this.

I can see you’ve had some great responses already, and I hope they have been helpful. I’ll try not to overlap too much with what has already been suggested, but offer some additional thoughts.

I think it is important as a parent that you don’t underestimate how valuable your support and encouragement is for your son. Even though this doesn’t prevent him feeling anxious, the fact that he can express to you when he finds something difficult, and has been able to identify some of the things that bother him (such as not having friends) suggests a strong relationship, which is really important for his overall wellbeing.

Often people with anxiety (particularly teens) feel like the anxiety means something bad about them as a person, or feel ashamed of not being confident to do things that they see others doing. Acknowledging and validating his distress, and also recognizing and highlighting his strengths and any small wins (times he is able to do something despite it being hard) is a powerful way to support his self-esteem.

One of the tricky things about social anxiety is that it can get in the way of talking about problems so it is understandable your son finds it hard to talk to his psychiatrist. Although individual time during sessions is important for the psychiatrist to build rapport, there is also a lot of value in having a discussion with the three of you (it wouldn’t need to be a full session, just a few minutes at the end of a session), working out how you can best support the steps they are taking in their sessions. It’s important to get your son’s okay for this (even though he is still young, the more involved he is in decision making, the more he will engage). The psychiatrist will be able to give more individual suggestions than I can, since I haven’t met your son. But, I’m happy to provide some general observations.
It sounds like your son avoids things which increase his anxiety (such as buying something from a shop, which would involve interacting with someone). This is really common in response to anxiety, but can be unhelpful because it becomes a habit over time, and can stop him from developing confidence in his ability to do these things (because confidence often comes with practice and the repeated experience of things going okay). Avoidance could also stop him from having fun, positive experiences - such as making friends and spending time with them.

Often, addressing anxiety involves gradually beginning to do things which the person is afraid of (starting small and moving slowly). This would usually be done with the help of a professional or via a structured program (online or face to face). This is because making a child do things they don’t feel ready for, or doing too much too soon can actually make things worse. Treatment involves the counsellor or therapist working with the child or young person, to help them with coping strategies and identifying ways of thinking which might be keeping anxiety going, and then beginning to tackle the avoidance. This might be something the psychiatrist is working on, but if not you may want to check out one of the options suggested by @Janine-RO or @sababajc if you haven’t already.

If your son would like to make some friends, sometimes one of the things that can make anxiety worse (especially at his age) is not knowing what to say or how to start a conversation. Practicing having a conversation with someone he is more comfortable with (such as a family member) can be really helpful to begin to build confidence. If he is interested, you could even come up with a plan about a small way he could practice social interactions (for instance, aiming to have a very brief conversation with a classmate about something to do with school, or about something they are both interested in). But, I would only recommend these if he is eager to try them, and let him take the lead on deciding his limits - if he feels this would be too overwhelming then he may not be ready for this step.

I wanted to reflect on something you said, that you feel bad because you don’t know what to do. It is hard, when you want to help someone and to have the answers for them and you don’t. I can understand why that would be upsetting. But I also want to acknowledge that no-one knows what to do all the time, and that you don’t have to have all the answers to be helping your son. Sometimes it’s okay to say “I’m not quite sure how to solve this, but I want to help you, and we can try to find out what will help together”. It can actually be really helpful to do this - to acknowledge that sometimes in life we deal with tricky problems where the best approach isn’t clear, but when that happens we can look for alternatives. You have demonstrated the ability to persevere despite uncertainty - you’ve arranged a health professional for him, and have asked the community here for ideas. I am sure that having such a resourceful parent on his side will be of great benefit to your son.

Best wishes,


Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.


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