The list of important and life changing new experiences is long in this last stage of development: interviewing for jobs and university placements, meeting new people, living in residences, dating and so on. As they are new experiences, it is difficult for the individual to know what to expect and thus most are somewhat anxious. Furthermore, all these are being expected of adolescents just when their parents are telling them that they are more mature and can make more decisions independently.
Some adolescents may hide their anxiety, especially from adults in authority, such as teachers, coaches or employers. Not resisting or feeling ashamed of the anxiousness they feel is one key strategy they need to manage it, and even to use it productively.
School is a major stressor for many young people. They are required to participate in a full range of activities and thus will likely be in some that they lack ability and skill in. They fear doing badly, perhaps pulling down the mark of the group, or the team. If they lack tolerance for being judged by others, then they may try to avoid the activity. This behaviour is more likely to occur at the beginning of the school year when young people are finding ways to cope with new situations.
As a teacher of a socially anxious older adolescent, you may observe some of the following behaviours:
- stating that growing up ‘is scary’
- expressing self-doubt, wondering if things will work out for them
- becoming more self-critical, even with positive evaluations from others
- when complimented, responding, “Are you just saying it to make me feel better? I didn’t think it was good enough.”
- expressing worry about new situations and meeting new people
- avoiding social situations, such as group activities, or after school events, dances, athletic activities, or work related situations, such as job interviews. When asked the reason for not participating, may just blush and avert the eyes
- looking down when sitting in class, painfully self-conscious about appearance—hair, clothes, face
- spending a lot of time connecting with people electronically, on Facebook or texting, but not interacting in person.
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If these socially anxious students implement any of your suggestions (See the Section: Green Light Course to Follow for these), then it is likely that they will, with your continued interest and support, work through some of their shyness and social anxiety. If you don’t see any progress, check the Yellow Light symptoms of Social Anxiety following.
Older teens may feel unable to accomplish all the tasks expected of them of this stage—developing a plan for their life, dating, forming meaningful and lasting relationships, forming a stable sense of their own identity, becoming more independent financially, and planning for life after high school. These are “high stakes” life challenges and they pile up on this age grouping
Some adolescents may have coped adequately with elementary school, even middle school, but then find the social challenges of high school too demanding. They may feel that they are different from others, that they don’t fit in, or may feel inadequate in some way. They are reluctant to socialize, for fear of humiliation, or harsh judgements by others. In a new social grouping, the less they participate early on, the more excluded they are likely to feel when others form friendships. This is an important reason for trying to intervene early in the school year.
As a teacher or mentor, you may hear about or witness some of the following behaviours:
- speaking in a very quiet or low tone, or not speaking at all, unable to talk on the phone, or order in a restaurant. Peers around the student start to act as if this is the expected behaviour of the shy student
- panicking, freezing, crying, stomach aches, in fear that they will be humiliated or embarrassed in a certain situation
- avoiding people or common situations at school and recreational activities
- avoiding eye contact or hiding from situations, looking down when sitting in class, shoulders hunched, nervously playing with hands; looking ill at ease in their own body
- becoming more self-critical even in the face of positive evaluations and feedback from others
- saying, when complimented: “Are you sure, or are you just saying it to make me feel better? I don’t think it was good enough.”
- fussing about appearance—hair, clothes, face; self-conscious and self critical
- spending hours a day on video games (normal for younger children, but not so for older teens)
- spending more time connecting with people electronically, on Facebook or texting, and avoiding interacting with others in real space
- taking up cigarette smoking to find acceptance and also calm anxious feelings. Peers may comment humorously about the shy student’s behaviour: “You started to smoke, this is so ‘cool’…”
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- experimenting with substance use, in order to calm anxious feelings, or even experimenting with higher risk sexual behaviour.
All of the following are cause for heightenedconcern and professional mental health help is likely necessary immediately:
- if an adolescent shows persistent fear of one or more social situations and the fear limits his or her participation in normal activities
- if an older adolescent is engaging in extreme withdrawal or avoidance of normal social situations and is refusing to acknowledge the problem,or to engage in a process of trying to improve the situation
- if adolescents are so worried about other people laughing at them that they refuse to participate in normal activities, refuse your strategies and accommodations to help them participate, and after you approach them about the situation, stop coming to your class
The following risky social behaviours are all happening outside your classroom, but you may become aware of them. All of them are reason to counsel the student to seek professional help.
Teens that are socially anxious may modify their levels of anxiety, using drugs, alcohol or high risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex. While exploring romantic and sexual relationships is a normal part of this stage of development, engaging in promiscuous sex with multiple partners is high risk behaviour. While providing immediate acceptance and relief from anxiety, these behaviours ultimately increase the anxiety as the teen deals with the consequences—peer rejection, trouble with the law, property damage, strong guilt reactions, and the possibility of STDs or pregnancy.
Internet communication allows socially anxious teens to socialize and interact with others, while remaining detached and impersonal. What they often don’t realize is that information they put on the internet can be shared or copied by many people other than the person for which it was intended. A recent study by the American Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy surveyed close to 2,000 teens and found that 1 out of 5 had sent nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. Forty percent of the sample said that they had sent sexually suggestive messages, and 48 percent of teens said they had received such messages. The urge to send such a message, make contact, and “hook up,” is great. The anxiety that may come after the message is sent and cannot be recalled can be even greater. At the same time, the more isolated from face-to-face contact these socially uncomfortable adolescents become, the harder it is for them to relate in person.
Finally, some situations can look like social anxiety at the outset but are not. For example, if there is a sudden change in behaviour and an adolescent starts avoiding social situations, it may indicate a serious bullying situation is occurringin school, or on the way to and from school, or with electronic communication that spreads negative information and rumours about a student. Speak directly to the student, raising this possibility. If confirmed, seek the help of the school administrators.
Further, mild forms of autism may look like social anxiety since autism is associated with the inability to adequately interpret different non-verbal and verbal communications, andto socialize. If Autism is the cause of the student’s social isolation, you are more likely to see idiosyncratic behaviours than shyness and embarrassment. You may see total absorption in a single subject or topic, rather than excessive self-absorption. If you suspect autism may underlie the social isolation you see, it likely has been documented in the student’s school record. Check with a professional for ways of relating to and teaching a student with mild autism.
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New experiences generally make all of us nervous. With experience, we learn that we can manage these feelings and even use them to focus our performance. Without these prior learning experiences, however, older teens may resort to unproductive means to lessen their anxiety: absenteeism, risky sex, substance abuse, internet abuses. For these behaviours, professional help should be quickly pursued.
The older teen years can be an especially anxious time; many of life’s “high stakes” developmental challenges are expected to be met in this period. Some may have already gotten jobs or university placements, steady romantic relationships, achievement awards, public commendations, making others nervous when they haven’t. Even the pending loss of the predictable high school environment that they have avoided participating in, can raise the anxiety level of the socially anxious adolescent.
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