For years, I've thought that I have some form of social anxiety. While I've never been formally diagnosed, I've exhibited most of the symptoms, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): nausea, dizziness, and sweating in social situations, as well as a general, paralyzing fear of being negatively judged by my peers. Sometimes my symptoms are subtle, like feeling nauseous before a meeting with my manager. Other times, they're more aggressive, like when I can't sleep at night before I have to give a presentation.
Elementary, middle and high school were really hard for me. I didn’t have many friends in school just because I was scared to talk to anyone, and it didn't help that I had to make new friends in elementary and middle school because I was assigned to a different school district. My feelings of anxiety persisted throughout college, where my grades suffered because I almost never raised my hand or participated in class discussions. The thought of having everyone's eyes on me and potentially judging me was just too much.
According to the ADAA, anxiety disorders are incredibly common: nearly 18% of the population, or 40 million people, suffers from at least one anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Social anxiety in particular is incredibly common, with nearly 6.8% of the population reporting having experienced it.
It's not unreasonable for me to assume that my kids might inherit my own social anxiety symptoms. There's some evidence to suggest that anxiety disorders are somewhat heritable, with one 2012 Johns Hopkins Children's Center study suggesting that children who grow up with parents with social phobias are more likely to display anxiety themselves.
Just the thought of having to interact with other people during group projects, or finding someone to sit with at lunch, was enough to make me sick.
But as someone who grew up with anxiety, I'm terrified that my children will have to deal with the same issues that I did. At a certain point, my anxiety got so bad that I would get intense stomachaches that resulted in numerous doctor visits. Just the thought of having to interact with other people during group projects, or finding someone to sit with at lunch, was enough to make me sick. When I was invited to parties, I’d try to behave like a "normal" person, but most of the time I just worried about how people would perceive my behavior.
Even now, at the age of 33, I am not comfortable in situations where I don’t know the people I will be interacting with, such as a playdate or a party. I try my best to put myself out there for my daughters, because I want them to make friends and I don’t want them to inherit my feelings of anxiety. Unfortunately, I'm already starting to see the symptoms.
So far, both of my girls have started to twirl their hair and bite their nails when they get nervous. My oldest daughter will always ask me what to expect before doing something new, like when we go on a new ride at Disneyland. She needs to know what what she will see and if there will be anything scary there. She’s also developed a nervous stomach, which means she has to use the restroom several times before she does something new, like dancing in a recital or taking a swim lesson.
Although some people link nervous tics like nail-biting to disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be fair they're are not signs of full-blown social anxiety. Yet they could be perceived as anxiety-related behaviors, which makes me worried that they may develop into social anxiety over time. I have not taken my daughters to see a doctor because I have not yet noticed them exhibiting the many traits of childhood anxiety disorders, such as staying away from places with lots of people or being so self-conscious around others that they cannot function in certain settings.
When my daughter starts to bite her nails or gets that anxious look, I do all I can to assuage her fears by walking her through the what-ifs. I tell her not to worry about things that she cannot control, like if one of the girls at the party may not play with her, and I try to help her figure out coping methods. For instance, if she is worried a friend may not include her in a game at school, I ask her how that will make her feel and how she can make the situation better, which usually is to play with another friend or to play on her own.
I force myself to do things I wouldn’t normally do, because I want my daughters to feel comfortable in social situations.
I try to fight against my anxious tendencies for the sake of my kids. For this reason, I force myself to do things I wouldn’t normally do, because I want my daughters to feel comfortable in social situations. I set up playdates to make sure they feel connected with other kids, and I attend every birthday party we're invited to so that I can continue to grow their network of friends. Afterwards, I’m usually exhausted, and in my head I usually go over everything I said while I was talking to other moms. But I don’t want parents to think I'm aloof or unfriendly and get my kids taken off the future invite list.
I hate that my daughter is only 4 years old and already experiencing symptoms anxiety, and I hope that it’s not because of me. I’m not sure if I’m worrying too much about it, but either way I intend to continue to try my best to teach my daughters how to work through situations that make them nervous, in the hopes that these methods will help keep anxiety at bay. If I notice them developing social anxiety as they continue to grow up, then I will take the necessary steps to ensure they are treated for it, whether that be through therapy or medication.
Luckily, we aren't at that place yet. But I feel confident that as a parent, I will do as much as I can to help them get to a place where they are not paralyzed by the thought of being around people.
If you struggle with symptoms of anxiety, please consult with a mental health care provider. You can also visit the ADAA or the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to learn more about anxiety disorders.