Kids living with social phobia need advocates

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Scared of crowds, fearing invisibility

by Shelley Plett

 

Anne and her 13-year-old daughter, Kate, sat among a group of parents and kids preparing for a youth group trip. Like most summer camps, it would be a week of rustic cabins, campfires and obstacle courses, designed to help the kids bond and grow through activities and downtime together.

The youth leader stood between the tables of campers. Checklist in hand, he gave final packing instructions as parents took notes, and then he set down the clipboard and walked to the front of the room.

“Who are our first time campers this year?” he asked the group. A few hands, including Kate's, went up.

“This is going to be a great experience,” he assured them. “I've gone to these camps all my life, first as a camper, then a counselor. Now I get to be a leader, and I still love camp. But my favorite part has always been all of the people. There will be hundreds of kids there. I have made so many friends through the years, several I'm still friends with today.”

At three of those words—hundreds of kids—Anne's hand dropped from her notepad, her gaze shifting to Kate. And she knew. They wouldn't need that packing list.

The very things that excited the youth leader—and nearly every other camper in the room—terrified Kate. If the thought of being dropped in an unfamiliar location wasn't unsettling enough, Anne knew that her daughter’s heart was racing at the realization that hundreds of kids would be on all sides of her.

This was yet-to-be-diagnosed social phobia. On a big scale, millions of people understand first-hand how debilitating this is. But in one single room to one single girl, she was the only one. 

Integrating socially anxious kids is not an easy task, when it's possible at all. Groups, especially youth groups are, by nature, structured for constant interaction, boisterousness and people who thrive in the middle of the action. This is not a bad thing. But it's not a good thing for those who struggle with social phobia.

“Very few people understand the agonizing and traumatic depth of social anxiety disorder,” says Thomas A. Richards of the Social Anxiety Institute. “All day, every day, life is like this: Fear. Apprehension. Avoidance. Pain. Afraid of rejection, of not fitting in. Anxious to enter a conversation, afraid you'll have nothing to talk about. They know that their anxiety is irrational and does not make head sense. Nevertheless, knowing something is never the same thing as believing and feeling something.”

A recurring quote appearing within the social anxiety support community describes the encumbering feelings in this way: “Just because I’m scared of crowds (and most social situations) doesn’t mean I enjoy invisibility.”

Several months after summer camp, with a Halloween church carnival on the calendar, Anne worked on Kate for a few days, convincing her to attend the party. Against every natural tendency, Kate agreed and walked into the busy event with her mother. They maneuvered through groups of people, made their way to the buffet line between hellos and handshakes and found a seat in the corner. As uncomfortable as Kate was, she stayed, she sat, she ate, and she even agreed to help her mother with games for the younger kids.

As they walked to their post, one of Kate's former schoolteachers passed them in the hallway. “Oh come on, smile Kate, it's not that bad,” she tossed out without a single thought or second glance. This was the pinprick that deflated four days of coaxing a vulnerable child to put herself out into the world.

And so it goes. One step forward. One step back. 

There are methods, therapies, books and programs available to help kids separate themselves from their anxiety and to find coping strategies. But until they are ready to accept their own potential (and during and after that time) they need one thing: an advocate. Someone to stand with them, believe in them, hear them, validate their feelings and point them forward when they step back.

Someone like you or me.

Shelley Plett is the graphic designer for the Christian Leader. She works in design and as a columnist for the Hillsboro Free Press, Hillsboro, Kan.

CL Archives
This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. We have also posted occasional articles published prior to 2008 as part of the archive. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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