Understanding Social Phobia
There are several things parents and teachers should know about social phobia and how kids with social anxiety process events.
Kids with social anxiety are highly sensitive
People with social phobia are hypersensitive to the evaluation of others. Studies have found that when patients with generalized social phobia read negative statements about themselves, fMRI brain scans revealed increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and amygdala – an indication of increased activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotion. Healthy controls showed different patterns. Yet there was no difference in brain activity between socially anxious individuals and controls when it came to positive statements. (Blair et al., 2008) In other words, they react more profoundly to social threats than others, and give these negative exchanges more weight than positive interactions.
This negative bias reinforces a child's social anxiety
One problem with social phobia is the anxiety feeds on itself. A child uncomfortable with social situations tends to pay more attention to potentially negative cases than positive ones, which reinforces their paranoia. "A socially anxious person giving a speech, for instance," says neuroscientist Elaine Fox, "might focus on the bored or mildly hostile face in the crowd without noticing the many engaged listeners in the audience. Over time a negative bias in attention can help construct a more hostile view of the world than if a person's focus lands instead on friendly, accepting faces." (Fox, 2013, p. 25) The same principle holds true in the schoolyard. A child with social anxiety tends to pay more attention to signs of hostility than acceptance, which skews their perspective and makes it more difficult to overcome their fears.
This type of "cognitive bias" ensures that a child's interactions are always skewed towards the negative. Therefore an important component of helping children overcome social anxiety is to train kids to approach their experiences more objectively, usually through some form of cognitive therapy or social skills training.
Self-perception in kids with social anxiety
Psychologist Susan Spence states that "socially phobic children tend to exhibit a variety of cognitive problems such as underestimation of social abilities, poor performance expectations, anticipation of adverse outcomes, and negative internal dialogue." (Spence, 2003, p. 86) Rumination can play a big role in reinforcing a child's social anxiety. Children tend to focus on past situations in which they felt embarrassed or failed to perform as they would have liked. They also tend to ruminate more about everyday interactions, going over the exchange over and over again in their heard to search for things they did wrong or could have done better.
This makes positive feedback by parents and teachers a crucial part of helping kids with social anxiety. Psychologists observe that "the fears of people with social phobia can be reinforced after facing situations if proper corrective attention is not paid to their self-talk after the event." (Curtis, Kimball & Stroup, 2004, p. 4) When kids are abandoned to their own thoughts, this tends to reinforce their anxiety. They need others to give them positive feedback that will interrupt the avalanche of self-critical thoughts.
What causes social phobia
Like other types of anxiety, social phobia generally arises from both biological vulnerabilities towards anxiety and experiences that make a child overly cautious around other people. Children with an extremely shy temperament are more likely to develop social phobia, but even kids who are outgoing by nature can develop the condition if subjected to certain environmental stressors.
Things like a person's early attachment experiences, suffering extremely embarrassing events, bullying, or having overly critical caretakers can all contribute to the acquisition of social phobia.