Change, and the stress it causes, can often be a trigger for mental health conditions.
When I started secondary school — a monumental change for many young people — I developed Social Anxiety Disorder, a fear of social situations.
To say that I was like a fish out of water in this new school environment is an understatement. It turned out that preferring books to boys was in fact not cool. I also didn’t fit the mould image-wise. I needed to have blonde hair, tanned skin or wear a short skirt. Difference isn’t celebrated by teenagers; it’s criticised. The worrying started off small at first. Did I have the right pencil case and bag? But, it then developed on a monstrous level and I found myself obsessing about what everyone thought of me. I’d lie awake at night analysing past conversations to a clinical level. Had I said anything stupid? Was I funny enough? Was I boring?
And then came the physical symptoms. The blushing and tremors were particularly bad. I turned crimson whenever someone spoke to me. I spent entire lessons on edge, fretting about whether the teacher would ask a question and draw attention to me. I couldn’t concentrate because I was worrying so much. There was something about eye contact that triggered it. Something about people calling my name.
English was my favourite lesson and the teacher was a kind and encouraging woman. Yet I didn’t dare raise my hand to answer any questions, through fear of blushing and looking like a freak. I desperately wanted to tell her how I was feeling, but I was too afraid.
Teachers are in a strong position to help children with mental health issues. Like many conditions, if it’s caught early, intervention can stop it from developing.
How to spot the signs of a child who is suffering with social anxiety
- Avoids eye contact and instead keeps their attention fixed on the desk.
- Doesn’t like to answer questions or share work.
- Physical symptoms such as blushing, shaking, stammering or a general restless disposition when attention is drawn to them.
- Frequently asking to leave the lesson to use the toilet.
How to help a child who is suffering from social anxiety
- In the initial stages, avoid drawing attention to them via questions or activities. The “tough love” approach does not work with an anxious child. If anything, it’s likely to cause lasting trauma.
- Discreetly ask to speak to them after class. If they start displaying physical symptoms of anxiety, try easing the tension with a joke. “Don’t worry about blushing, I do it all the time. I look like an angry tomato!” Then ask the child if they are struggling. Let them know that you’re always happy to talk if they need to.
- If possible, talk to the child’s parents about the issue. It’s unlikely that they will have told a parent. Most people with social anxiety keep it a secret for as long as possible.
- Start a peer-to-peer support system. Children tend to listen to other children. Again, this can be discreet. If I had met an older child with the same issues as me, it would’ve made me feel less alone.
- Talk to charities such as Young Minds and Anxiety UK for further advice and ideas.
Claire Eastham is a mental health blogger. Her book is published on 21st November with Jessica Kingsley Publishers.