Your every move is being carefully watched. Your life is under the scanner and your limbs have given up on you; you trip and fall flat face. There is humiliating laughter all around. You crawl into a small room. But, the walls begin closing in on you. You’re trapped in an airtight bell jar. You can’t breathe anymore. The alarm bells are getting louder. Panic grabs you by the throat. And then… darkness.
This was, in fact, nine-year-old Sri Vishnu’s reality for years. To understand the situation, go back and read the sentence above again from the start. It can be an unnerving experience.
And, it wasn’t an army of blood-thirsty soul invaders that sent him into the aforementioned tizzy. It was you. It was me. Sometimes, even his own family, his own friends.
To the untrained eye, Sri Vishnu might have simply come across as painfully shy. But, as someone who suffered acute Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or social phobia, this child went through an early life overwhelmed by extreme feelings. Vishnu’s case is an extreme one. There are SAD sufferers who are quite comfortable interacting with select family and friends. Still, it is worrying that an increasing number of children have been falling prey to this disorder lately.
A detailed study conducted by a team at the University of Delhi in 2009, sought to assess the incidence of Social Anxiety Disorder in school-going children in the age group of 14-17 years. The study, titled Prevalence of Social Phobia in School-Going Adolescents in an Urban Area, concluded that social phobia was caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.
What is social phobia?
As the name suggests, social phobia is an irrational fear of social situations. “There are two main types. The first focuses on performance - things like speaking in public, ordering food in restaurants, going to malls, etc. The second is interactional - pertaining to social situations even when they’re not in the spotlight,” explains psychologist Varuna C. Symptoms include frequent tantrums, crying, cold shivers, being clingy and inhibited interactions, to the point of refusing to talk to others. Children suffering from social anxiety also have higher chances of developing panic disorders, OCD, alcohol addiction, Anorexia Nervosa, Schizophrenia, depression and suicidal tendencies.
What causes it?
- It could be you: Studies have proven that there is a greater risk of having social phobia if a first-degree relative also has the disorder.
- Learnt behaviours: If you overprotect your already-shy child, this can, over time, turn into social phobia.
- Life itself: If children who are born shy have stressful experiences, it can make things worse, as can pressure to interact, criticism, bullying and humiliation.
Art therapy can help in diagnosing the problem, considering such children are unlikely to be able to articulate their thoughts verbally. Renowned art therapist Bhuvana BG says, “Art is a form of expression, of the unconscious. The therapist will, therefore, be easily able to identify the issue and take due measures, based on the child’s art.”
It has been shown that SAD sufferers respond well to behavioural therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, is a proven method. Medications can also alleviate anxiety, thereby making the therapy more effective.
Yoga guru Dr Vikram Srinivasan, believes yoga is a great option too. “For concentration to improve, the body’s oxygen levels need to go up. This can be achieved through different breathing exercises. Yoga must be taught as a story to them, as an activity, with music,” he says.
What can schools do to help children with SAD?
Rashmi Maria, student counsellor at Scholar’s International School, Doha, insists that all schools must have a social skills training programme. “The first step for a school is to interact with the child and make him understand what’s happening to him. Then, core anxieties should be investigated and we have a brainstorming session where we come up with ways to make his thoughts positive,” she says.
The second step is to interact with the parents. “We make them aware of what is happening, and collect information from the child’s past. Next, we bring the peer group into the picture. Students who we think are capable of helping others are called upon and involved in group studies, role plays and lunches with the child,” Rashmi relates.
This apart, it is important to meet the child frequently and give him the strength to accomplish his tasks - this is called Motivation Enhancement Therapy.
“My son hates going to restaurants but I still take him out and get him to order his own food; he prefers sitting in his room to playing outside, but he has a mandatory one-hour play-time every day,” insists Vishnu’s mother, Revathi. “We never handle disputes for him. Instead, we enable him to come up with his own solutions. Even now, when we push him to do something, he keeps asking for reassurance, but we limit our assurances.”
Revathi warns parents against shrugging off telling behaviours as mere shyness, like she did. “Don’t let it become a chronic condition- it can turn your family life topsy-turvy,” she shudders, adding, “SAD is treatable- so please accept it!”
Enough said, parents. Equipped with this information, keep your precious ones from falling into the aptly-abbreviated SAD stronghold.
Help your child overcome social phobia
A 5-step guide:
- Help your child stay positive at all times.
- Help your child find good friends.
- Enrol your child in a team that’s closest to his areas of interest.
- Help your child understand the concept of self-motivation.
- Accept that socialising is 90% mental and just 10% practice.