Q. My 13-year-old daughter, who was never shy, is suddenly avoiding her friends. If others are watching, she often trembles when she writes. She also doesn’t like to eat in front of people. She doesn’t have a medical problem. What can be wrong with her?
A. From your description, it sounds as if your daughter has social phobia which most often develops in the early teen years. Because many adolescents with social phobia were not shy children, this sudden change is often puzzling to parents.
As children enter their teen years, most develop what psychologists call a “personal fable,” a belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are unique and more intense than those of others. Adolescents also have what psychologists term “an imaginary audience,” the assumption that they are the center of others’ thoughts and interests. If someone is whispering, many teens are certain it is about them.
People who are social phobic are terrified that their behavior will bring ridicule from their peers. You may notice that your daughter often blushes when people speak to her; she may perspire easily; and she may be frightened of public speaking. One patient remembers that her social phobia began in early high school when she was not answering the roll loudly enough in choir. The teacher made a snide comment about her ability to project. After that, she had a panic attack every time she entered the choir room.
Social phobics negatively interpret most events. If someone mentions that your daughter never eats much lunch, her interpretation will likely be “they know I am so anxious I can’t eat.” You can work with her to challenge these dysfunctional thoughts and feelings. I ask patients, “What is the worst that can happen if you drop your drink, forget a speech, fall in front of others …” Hopefully, we arrive at the conclusion that people may notice and may laugh, but they soon forget.
If you have access to a mental health professional, a few sessions may give your daughter some coping skills and additional confidence. There are also several self-help books for social phobias. I recommend “The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook” by Martin Anthony and Richard Swinson.
Q. I gave a presentation at work over a month ago that was a disaster. I forgot my material and had some wrong data. I am frightened that I will be fired. I get extremely anxious every morning when I go to work. Should I just find another job?
A. Virtually anyone who has been in the business world has had at least one presentation that was a disaster. When I was working at Time Inc., my boss met me at corporate Wal-mart for an important meeting. I gave such a horrible presentation that I was certain I was going to be fired. The only comment my boss made after the meeting was, “Can you get me to the airport on time?” He never mentioned the presentation again, nor did I.
When we have given less than a stellar performance, many of us begin to engage in catastrophic thinking and self-blame. We begin to question our own self-worth and ability to perform. So you are probably thinking, “I’m going to be reprimanded. I’ll never be trusted again. How could I make these stupid mistakes? I’ll be fired and then no one will hire me.” Most of these imagined disasters never happen.
Instead of creating a personal catastrophic situation where there is none, look at the obvious. If you were going to be reprimanded, it’s hardly going to be over a month later. Most likely everyone has forgotten about your mistakes because they are too worried about their own.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice for several years. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.