Is it Shyness or Social Anxiety? Uncovering the Facts for Social Anxiety in Children and Adolescents

Is it Shyness or Social Anxiety?

Uncovering the Facts for Social Anxiety in Children and Adolescents 

 Teenager depressed sitting inside a dirty tunnel - Shyness or Social Anxiety 

Primary and secondary school can be a tough phase of life for many children and adolescents. Naturally, as kids learn to fend for themselves and grow their own wings, they are constantly faced with new responsibilities, decisions, consequences and commitments. A big part of growing up, particularly during schooling years is making friends, succumbing to peer pressure and being confronted with sometimes embarrassing or awkward social situations. Many children and adolescents may feel uncomfortable with certain social situations, and to others they may appear as though they lack confidence when confronted with different groups of people, or exhibit shyness when speaking or performing in front of an audience. Feeling a sense of nervousness or mild anxiety in these types of social situations is normal to a certain extent. However, it is important not to confuse excessively shy and fearful behaviour regarding social interactions in young people as simply a “phase” they will grow out of, as these behaviours may be disguising the manifestation of an anxiety disorder known as social phobia.  


 So what’s the difference between shyness and social anxiety?

Struggling School BoySocial anxiety, (also known as social phobia), in children is most commonly recognised to observers as typical shyness, and may be disguised to parents and teachers as the case of the “perfect student” –as the old saying goes “children should be seen and not heard”. These children are often praised for their diligence towards school work, or how well behaved and polite they are – naturally reinforcing their anti-social behaviour. Young people with social anxiety often fear they will say or do the wrong thing in front of others, or be the subject of humiliation, embarrassment or negative judgement and ridicule. Their fear is usually so powerful that they initiate extreme precautionary avoidance tactics of their feared social situation(s). Common examples include (but are not limited to) speaking out in groups, participating in certain social situations or activities (such as parties or sports), eating or writing in front of people, using public amenities, or speaking to people in authoritative positions (such as school teachers or principals).  

In this modern day and age we are seeing technology advance at an outstanding pace –the revolution of the internet has expanded our limitations and changed the way we interact. As a result, more and more young people are gravitating towards popular social media communication outlets online, as opposed to face to face interactions. Herein lies the rub– numerous studies suggest this online environment is allowing us to become more socially isolated, lonely, and helps to facilitate anti-social behaviour and anxiety around offline social situations. 

What are the symptoms?

Young people with social anxiety often experience the same physical symptoms associated with generalised anxiety when confronted with their feared social situation, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Increased heartbeat
  • Nervous sweating
  • Overwhelming racing thoughts
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Some more distinguishable and observable features of social anxiety (in comparison to other anxiety disorders) is that the individual may blush, stutter, tremor, or say the wrong thing in their deliberate attempt to avoid doing exactly that. This only exasperates their embarrassment and helps to sustain their insecurities – usually reinforcing their negative belief system about what others must be thinking of them.

Bullying after school

How do I know if my child has social anxiety?

Common characteristics of social anxiety – social anxiety checklist for young people:

  • Negative and irrational automatic thoughts about what they assume others “must” be thinking about them
  • Physical symptoms associated with anxiety when confronted with their feared social situation, including the distinctive observable symptoms such as blushing, shaking, voice cracking, stuttering, and nervous sweating
  • Avoidance behaviours of their feared social situation – this may come across to others as “snobbery”, shyness, standoffishness, unwarranted aggressive behaviour, heightened vigilance and sensitivity to the point of offending others
  • Their distress over social situations disrupts and interferes with daily activities, social relationships, the development of important social skills, or concentration on school work.
  • Extreme self-consciousness
  • Have a limited number of friends
  • Have difficulty (and avoid) participating in group activities, such as sports, social events, or class discussion

What is the treatment for social anxiety in children & adolescents?

The most successful method to treat social anxiety in children and adolescents is through helping them to identify their irrational fears around social situations. A big component of treatment involves re-educating them on more realistic, positive thoughts, helping to “re-wire” their unrealistic and engrained beliefs, after gradually introducing them to exposure therapy. This psychotherapeutic process is otherwise known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), carried out with the guidance and support from a psychologist specialising in the area. It is important that social anxiety in young people is addressed as soon as the symptoms can be identified, and treated in the early stages, as the disorder may worsen and carry across into their adult life. Moreover, if social anxiety in children and adolescents is left untreated, it may prevent them from reaching their full potential in scholastic achievements, relationships, inhibit their social skills as adults, and impair their quality of life.

How can I help my child overcome social anxiety?

  1. The first step in helping children and teens to overcome their social anxiety is to talk with them about what they fear. Help them to identify what exactly they believe others will be (or are) thinking of them – In particular, help them to rationalise what (if any) evidence their fears are grounded on.
  2. Be a good role model –demonstrate positive social interactions and encourage positive conversations with others, such as other children or parents in their presence.
  3. Encourage and establish a step ladder reward system approach to their feared social interactions.
  4. Be careful not to deliberately force them to confront their fears in front of others, as this may only increase their humiliation, making matters worse by reinforcing their negative thoughts.



If you can identify any of the symptoms of social anxiety in your child as mentioned above, please contact us on (07) 3041 1164 to arrange an appointment with one of our psychologists specialising in the field. If you want to learn more about the topic, our founder and director of Anxiety House, Dr. Emily O’Leary, is running an upcoming Shyness or Social Anxiety information night, taking place on March 31st. Spots are limited, so be sure to contact us in advance to secure your place.

 Dr Emily O’Leary – Clinical Psychologist

EmilyClinical Director of Anxiety House and OCD Clinic since 2010

  • Ten years’ experience with clients with OCD and anxiety
  • Clinical supervisor and STAP trained
  • Worked in public and private sectors for many years
  • Worked in acute inpatient and outpatients units
  • Regular speaker on radio and social media
  • Researcher and presenter at international conferences





Bonetti, Luigi (2009). The relationship of loneliness and social anxiety with children’s and adolescents’ online communication. Retrieved from

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