Well-behaved children can be hiding their social anxiety

Frequently, they don’t draw attention to themselves, which means they suffer in silence

John Sharry starts a series of six articles in Health & Family in The Irish Times looking at how parents can help children and teenagers manage anxiety. The articles will alternating with his parenting column.

The strength of worrying

Excessive worrying and anxiety is the most common mental health problem for children and teenagers and many parents struggle in finding the best way to respond. There are many different types of anxiety-related problems such as separation anxiety, when children find it hard to be away from their parents, or phobias, when children develop a specific debilitating fear, or generalised anxiety, when children develop a habit of worrying and ruminating about just about everything. Most common of all, is social anxiety, when children become excessively shy or avoid certain social situations altogether due to anxiety.

Despite being a common problem, many anxious children do not receive the support they need. Frequently, these children can be well behaved and don’t draw attention to themselves, which can mean they suffer in silence ( unlike other children who might have behaviour problems who can become the centre of attention).


In my clinical work, I see many children who excessively stressed and worried about school, yet the teacher is not aware of this as the child is well behaved in the classroom. The tragedy of this lack of attention is that anxious children usually respond very positively to a small amount of attention and support. With a little bit of help anxious children can be taught skills to manage their anxiety that they can use throughout their lives.

Over the course of this series of articles in The Irish Times, I will outline six practical principles you can use as parent to help children and teenagers who might be anxious, starting the first principle today, which focuses on taking time to understand the strengths that underpin your child's worrying.

How anxiety can help

It is important to remember that some anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. A little bit of anxiety helps children prepare and can motivate them to act well. For example, if you feel a little anxious about an exam it can motivate you to study or if you are nervous about a social situation it makes you think through and prepare well. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it is excessive and stops children from functioning or makes them avoid important events (eg avoiding school or refusing to go an important social events). In helping children, the goal is to help them manage their anxiety, so it helps rather than prevents them from being successful.

The strength of anxiety

While excessive anxiety can of course cause lots of problems for children, the presence of anxiety also indicates a number of possible strengths that these children possess. Anxious children usually have vivid imaginations, though these are unfortunately working against them, visualising in full colour and in great detail what might go wrong. The tendency to ruminate, rehearse and replay negative events indicates the potential to be good thinkers, planners and organisers. Socially anxious children are usually very sensitive to their own feelings and those of others in social situations which gives them great skills in understanding people. Overall, anxious children are usually reflective people who have a great facility to think things through. The goal is to help children access these potential strengths so they are working for and not against them.

Using their strengths

Usually children who are anxious are self-critical and beat themselves up about being anxious. The feel they are a burden to their families who are may be equally debilitated by the anxiety (eg whole families not going out due to a child’s anxiety). When I meet them for the first time I try and start with their strengths to show that they have many abilities. For example, I might say to a socially anxious child

– “It sounds like you are very sensitive to everyone’s feelings – you work hard to understand people’s feelings.”

– “It sounds like you take your time to consider things before you decide what to do, that is a good skill.”

By appreciating children’s strengths you counteract the belief that there is something “wrong with them” and you empower them to think they have the ability to sort their problems out for themselves

– “You have an amazing imagination, just that you are only imagining the worst that can happen. Supposing you were to imagine the best that could happen, what would that be like?”

– “You spend a lot of time thinking about things . . . it strikes me that you have a very good mind – lets now use that thinking to critically analyse the anxiety that is affecting you.”

In helping anxious children we want to employ their strengths to tackle their problems, redirect their nervous energy to problem solving rather than simply worrying, use their good imagination and planning to envision positive things they want rather than just worries they are seeking to avoid. In practical terms you can use their strengths to try out creative exercises that can help them cope and manage. For example, anxious children are often great at doing imaginative exercises such as talking to worry dolls to sort out problems or imagining putting their worries in a box each evening so they don’t bother them at night or visualising a happy place as they listen to music as a means to help them relax.

Tips for going forward

1) Thinking of your children, make a list of the things you admire about them. Make a plan to tell them these things over the coming week.

2) Considering their particular anxiety, make a list of the underlying strengths, this anxiety might indicate.

3) When you listen to them next week talking about a worry, remember to point out some of these strengths. For example

– “You are good at imagining things, you are just imagining how things might go wrong, lets think of how things could go well.”

– “You are sensitive to people’s feelings, lets think how how they might be really feeling in that situation.”

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a course on Helping Children Overcome Anxiety starting on Monday, February 6th. See www.solutiontalk.ie for details

The next article in the series will look at how parents can best respond to children’s worries in a way that calms the child.