Recognizing the Signs of Social Anxiety

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 7.1% of adults in the United States suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. This number is higher for women than men and only accounts for people who’ve gone through the process of receiving a formal diagnosis or reported experiencing social anxiety, which means that the actual number is very much underrepresented. For children this number is much higher. 11.2% of girls and 7% of boys struggle with Social Anxiety during their adolescent years. To complicate things further, the ways in which social anxiety presents itself across people is not the same. This makes recognizing the signs and providing supports for our learners challenging. It is simply not a one size fits all. (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.)

The most common way of conceptualizing what social anxiety looks like is to think of classic avoidance behaviors such as protest or refusal to be around other people, but it is so much more complex. Social anxiety can present itself physiologically, behaviorally, cognitively, and or in any combination of the three.

Physiologically, children may experience or express illness such as stomach pains, nausea, sweating, increased heart rate, muscle tension and flushing. (Hitchcock, Chavira, and Stein. 2009.) Children’s physical symptoms may get overlooked unless the child explicitly ties it to a specific type of situation. In some instances, reported physical symptoms may even get dismissed or ignored, only serving to worsen and continue the cycle, without trying to understand, alleviate, and teach skills to manage and overcome the source of the anxiety.

Behaviorally, children may act out and present as angry, irritable, clingy, fearful/overcautious, non-assertive, and, overly sensitive to criticism. (Hitchcock, Chavira, and Stein. 2009.) In these instances, it is very easy for children to get labeled as non-compliant or acting out to get attention, when the underlying cause has nothing to do with that and doing so will not teach replacement skills/behaviors and only perpetuate the cycle.

Cognitively, children may struggle with interpreting social situations and share fears of being judged for their attempts and actions (Hitchcock, Chavira, and Stein. 2009.) In these instances, children may retreat entirely and develop a variety of social avoidance behaviors such as school avoidance.

Be sensitive to the different ways in which Social Anxiety can manifest by looking for patterns and clues along the way that can help to identify and understand why it is happening. Do you notice certain patterns of reported illness, or behavior in similar types of social environments? If so, you could be witnessing Social Anxiety expressed in the moment. Try to understand what about that situation is stressful by putting yourself in the learners’ shoes. From there, you can brainstorm supports and skills that need to be taught to help the learner manage and overcome it.

Hitchcock, C., Chavira, D., Stein, M. (2009) Recent findings in social phobia among children and adolescents. Journal of Psychiatry and Related Science, 46(1), 34-44.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Social anxiety disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from

About the Author

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed. BCBA LBA (CT) Co-Founder & CEO

Justyna Balzar has over 15 years experience with learners of varying profiles between the ages of 3 to 18 across multiple settings. She received her Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) certification in 2014 from Florida Institute of Technology, her Master in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University, followed by her BCBA certification in 2016.