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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Kids Afraid of Life

Too Shy
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It's Different for Kids continued...

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.

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.

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