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Will Social Anxiety Keep Your Child From Succeeding in School?

By Phyllis Foxworth

With the ringing of the first classroom bell to signal the start of a new school year, two images often come to mind: children excited about seeing old friends and their favorite teacher, or the endearing scene of a shy child clinging to his mother’s leg.

But what if the latter scenario is not as innocent as popular culture depicts? In the most recent Care For Your Mind (CFYM) series, experts associated with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America shed light on a debilitating but little known disorder, social anxiety disorder (SAD) that effects 12% of youth. Often first appearing in grade school, this disorder can be treated and managed with the right support and professional help.

Mark Pollack, M.D. president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America believes lack of awareness about the disorder among medical providers and the general public prevent people from getting help for this treatable condition.

Parents can play a primary role in getting the support their children need, but only if they recognize the symptoms. In a CFYM poll 71% of respondents stated they did not think most parents would recognize SAD in their own children. Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., Director, Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders underscores the need for parental recognition when she states that, “social phobia is a gateway disorder to depression, substance abuse, and lifetime impairment.” In her post she provides warning signs and symptoms parents should be aware of.

Dr. Albano also suggests that parents unwittingly exasperate the situation when they step in and speak for their children. For example, when unable to answer a question addressed to them, parents might make excuses, such as “Johnny is shy.” While well-intentioned, by managing a stressful situation for their children, parents inadvertently enable them to avoid dealing with the emotions and anxiety these situations provoke.

As the school year begins, we must also ask whether or not there is a role for schools in helping parents recognize the symptoms of SAD in their child and provide therapeutic support. Dr. Albano points out that the very place that is causing the stress, could be the best place to learn how to deal with it.

Many schools offer screenings and teachers are taught how to identify the disorder. Once permission has been obtained from parents, schools provide in-school or after school therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be one of the more successful tools to support children living with SAD. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) describes CBT as a “form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors.” CBT is usually associated with an end date. The goal is not long protracted therapy, but rather brief intervention to provide the child with tools to help them manage stressful situations that trigger SAD symptoms.

Teaching about SAD in traditional health classes is another way to create awareness about the disorder. Unfortunately, however, the symptoms of the disorder such as fear of talking to adults or authority figures can prevent a child from seeking help.

Given these facts, positioned alongside the positive results of early intervention, seeking funding for in-school screening and treatment is an idea that is long overdue. Why not bring it up at the first parent teacher organization or school council meeting? Talk to school administrators and teachers to gain support. Make it your calling to be an advocate for children.

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