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Kids Afraid of Life

Too Shy

It's Different for Kids continued...

Boys and girls are equally affected, but girls are more likely to admit it, says Beidel. The condition can be clearly diagnosed as young as age 8. Younger children may also suffer from social anxiety, but it's harder to diagnose them because they may be unable to fully express their feelings.

Because the children who suffer from social anxiety usually aren't the troublemakers in school, they may get overlooked, says Beidel.

Social phobia tends to run in families. If a parent suffers from any kind of anxiety disorder, it's more likely the child will, too, says Beidel. The condition may also be learned: If parents are shy, they may not take their child to different places, to meet different people, and the child will not learn to cope with new situations.

Getting Help

It's important to treat social anxiety as early as possible, both experts agree.

"This is not something you outgrow without intervention," says Beidel.

Adds Markway, "Social anxiety can be a precursor to depression in adolescence, and in adults can lead, along with depression, to substance abuse, even suicide."

When treating social anxiety in adults, medications such as SSRIs. Paxil, for example, has been FDA approved to treat social anxiety in adults. Though SSRIs have not received FDA approval for the treatment of social anxiety in children, they can be used successfully, says Markway.

But the standard treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, geared to the child's age. The use of puppets, for example, can help children change the way they think about things and how they talk to themselves. Kids are also taught relaxation techniques to use in situations that make them uncomfortable.

"Through treatment, the kids can learn that the horrible things they fear won't happen," says Beidel.

Beidel is currently conducting a four-year study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, comparing behavior therapy, Prozac, and placebo in youngsters aged 8-16. Part of the behavioral component consists of a program in which children in the trial meet with "peer helpers," for an hour and a half at a time, in a social situation.

"This is a chance for the kids with social phobia to mix with the kids who usually ignore them in a setting they usually don't go to," says Beidel. "It gives them the opportunity to practice the skills they have been learning."

While it's important to get help as early as possible, the good news is that studies indicate that treatment is effective and need not go on for an unlimited length of time, says Markway. "Short-term [six to 12 weeks perhaps, although it does depend on the severity of the disorder] usually works," he says. "You're not looking at years and years of therapy."

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