Dr Carl says studies show that while parents help their children overcome social anxiety, the use of certain practices such as excessive control, can have a negative impact on their children’s social anxiety.
In a 2008 pilot study by Alice de Wilde and Macquarie University’s Distinguished Professor Ronald Rapee about controlling maternal behaviour and its impact on anxiety in children1, children aged 7 to 13 years were asked to prepare a two minute speech.
For half of these children, mothers were asked to be overly controlling by helping their child extensively with their speech preparation and more or less take over the task. For the other half, mothers were told to be minimally controlling, and only gently guide and encourage their child on the task.
Children were subsequently asked to prepare a second speech by themselves and then deliver it to a small audience.
The results showed that children whose mothers had previously been overly controlling and had taken over the speech-writing the first time, showed greater anxiety when they presented the second speech.
Dr Carl says this study highlights that parenting behaviours, particularly the degree of control, may have a significant impact on a child’s anxiety as more control may lead to more anxiety in these situations.
Dr Carl says shyness is a personality trait which exists across a continuum from very low to very high in all people.
When shyness becomes very extreme and starts to impair a person’s daily functioning, it can be diagnosed using the clinical term, ‘social anxiety disorder’.
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged or evaluated negatively by other people and the excessive worry about what other people think. Those with social anxiety usually experience distress in social situations, and often times their daily functioning is disrupted due to their avoidance of these social situations.
“Around one child in every typical Australian classroom will meet criteria for social anxiety disorder, while up to a dozen will be shy,” Dr Carl says.
“Shy behaviour is normal at any age. Some children are slow to warm up to other people, but can and do warm to a person after a period of time.
“Shyness, however, becomes a problem when it starts to affect a young person’s life and is persistent across time and circumstances. Shyness with other children, rather than adults, particularly those who are familiar to them and their own age, can be particularly problematic.
“In terms of development, the negative impact of extreme shyness is usually not too large during preschool years, but starts to increase gradually across the childhood years.”
Knowing when to intervene can be difficult for parents, but Dr Carl suggests parents should be concerned when their child’s extreme shyness is interfering with their daily functioning and routine; with the family’s daily activities; if their child plays alone when in groups of children of a similar age; or their child constantly complains of being lonely.
“It is important for parents to recognise that every child experiences the feeling of shyness or anxiety in certain circumstances. However, parents should never force their child to do things they find frightening,” she says.
“Instead, parents should seek further information on social anxiety and organise an appointment at their GP or another mental health care professional.
“There are a number of evidence-based programs and services that can effectively help reduce children’s social anxiety.
“Ultimately, good treatment does involve having young people face the situations or the fear.
“Importantly though, parents and children should work together so that the parent can encourage, gently guide and support their child to face their feared situation. Children should not be forced against their will.”