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Kids Afraid of Life

Too Shy

WebMD Feature

It's not uncommon for kids -- as well as adults -- to be shy. They may be uncomfortable when meeting new people or being in new situations. But once they've gotten their feet wet, so to speak, they're usually fine. For others though, that initial feeling of discomfort never goes away and keeps them from leading a normal life. When shyness reaches that level, it takes on a different name -- social anxiety.

There's more awareness of social anxiety -- also known as social phobia -- in adults than in children, says Barbara Markway, PhD, co-author with her husband, Greg Markway, PhD, of Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life. But the condition actually often starts in adolescence, or even childhood, she says. "The sooner you can diagnose it, the sooner you can treat it and avoid the pain and suffering that come along with the disorder," says Markway, who suffered from social anxiety as a young adult.

Adults and kids alike who suffer from social anxiety fear that others are judging them, that they're the center of (unwanted) attention, that they're being scrutinized all the time, says Markway. In kids, those feelings can translate into such behaviors as not raising their hand in class, not eating in the cafeteria with the other kids, not playing with the other kids on the playground, not joining after-school activities, and in some instances, refusing to go to school at all.

In severe cases, a condition known as selective mutism can develop in which a child won't speak to anyone outside his or her family -- interfering with both school performance and social interaction. "It's as if the voice box is frozen," Markway explains.

It's Different for Kids

One difference between kids and adults with social anxiety, says Markway, is that because youngsters find it harder to articulate their feelings verbally -- may not even recognize what they're feeling -- they may be prone to tantrums, crying spells, or frequently complain of stomachaches.

"Adults often realize that their fears are excessive," Markway says. "But kids don't." The bottom line, however, may be the same ... they try to avoid situations that make them nervous.

The difference between garden-variety shyness and social anxiety can be found in how much the condition is affecting daily life. "If the child is avoiding things that normal kids like to do, you may be in the realm of disorder rather than just shyness," says Markway.

Approximately 3-5% of the population suffers from social anxiety, says Deborah Beidel, PhD, professor of psychology and co-director of the Maryland Center for Anxiety Disorders at the University of Maryland in College Park. The incidence in children younger than 12 is about 3%, and in adolescents, about 5%, she says. Beidel is co-author with Samuel M. Turner, PhD, of Shy Children, Phobic Adults: The Nature and Treatment of Social Phobia.

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