The impact of social anxiety on children and young people during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Marilena Andreou – March 2021

Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

Article published in Cherubs Magazine spring 2021 edition

Generally, as people, we are born to connect and interact with others.

However, for those children and young people that have social anxiety disorder they have an excessive fear of being judged by others, scrutinised and a persistent fear of humiliation. This can then lead to avoidance of interacting in social situations altogether or even limiting their telecommunications. It differs from the slight shyness as an adolescent. Approximately 12% of us may experience social anxiety disorder in our lifetime. The Covid-19 pandemic has understandably exacerbated social anxiety in children and young people. During these unprecedented times, there have been multiple lockdowns and school/college closures causing people a lot of anxiety and young people being apprehensive about the prospect of interacting with others again. Those affected by social anxiety may feel only temporary relief while they stay at home in their ‘comfort zones’ during the pandemic. Social anxiety can also have a negative impact on relationships, hobbies, school and work performance.

Everyone has had to adapt to the ‘new normal’ way of life, having to adjust our behaviours accordingly, which consists of social distancing and wearing masks. Wearing masks can even mean that we are not able to fully read facial expressions, which can in turn amplify social anxiety difficulties. For example someone might be smiling under the mask but this could be perceived as the other person staring and coming across as rude. From this, a person may then ‘mind-read’ and misinterpret this with thoughts about being judged or ridiculed. These government changes have strongly gone against our previous experiences in life and this has left a lot of us feeling worried and many of us are spending more time interacting online with others.

Social anxiety symptoms to look out for in young people:

  • Avoiding eye contact with others.

  • Sleep difficulties – could be linked to nightmares or worries which are specifically heightened at night.

  • Avoiding social interactions or making excuses to leave early from events/social gatherings.

  • Not wanting to go to school or college.

  • Withdrawn behaviours – becoming increasingly subdued.

  • Reducing/avoiding talking on the phone or interacting virtually with others.

  • Physical symptoms (before or during the fearful situation) such as sweating, shaking/trembling, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness etc.

  • Fluctuations in mood, increased anxiety and/or low mood.

  • Sudden persistent bed wetting.

  • Reassurance-seeking behaviours e.g. asking parents or guardians if they think certain people like or dislike them.

Six strategies for managing social anxiety disorder:

  1. Challenge negative thoughts – identify the thoughts that go through your mind. Sometimes it is difficult for one to differentiate between real or perceived threats. Remember that you are safe and it is likely that there is no threat. Bear in mind that it is impossible to know what others are really thinking.

  2. Maintain social connections – do the best that you can under these circumstances, connecting by telephone, virtually, through social media, emails or sending letters.

  3. Exposure – expose yourself to fearful situations in a way that feels safe for you and starting always in very small steps. For example; talking face-to-face with shopassistants or going for a socially distanced walk and talk with a friend or relative.

  4. Shift your attention – move your attention from being internal to being external when in an anxiety-provoking situation. Try to pay attention to external things, such as people, sights, sounds, and smells instead of what symptoms you are feeling inside you. Anxiety symptoms are not as obvious to others as you might think they are.

  5. Structure the day – children and young people thrive on routine and structure. Planning routine work activities such as assignments but also including more pleasurable activities each day in an activity diary.

  6. Seek help from a mental health professional

– talking therapies are very helpful, cognitive behavioural therapy is a very effective treatment for social anxiety disorder.

What parents can do to manage their children’s/relatives’ social anxiety:

  1. Talk to your child/relative regularly about what they have been thinking and feeling. Normalise their worries and concerns. Younger children might struggle to describe their emotions – they can use drawings or pictures or stickers to help with this.

  2. Encourage your child/relative to connect with others regularly via telephone virtually, text messages and emails.

  3. Reassurance giving – while some is acceptable, refrain from excessive reassurance giving as it reinforces the anxiety.

In conclusion, it is evident that some people are affected by social anxiety disorder. If you can relate to any of the typical symptoms or you know someone that could be affected, there are some strategies that the individual can try out. Furthermore, the parent/guardian can also give their support to help to try to overcome their symptoms.