August 12, 2002
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
FOR MANY CHILDREN, THE START
OF SCHOOL BRINGS MORE THAN BUTTERFLIES IN THE STOMACH
Social Anxiety Disorder
Can Seriously Impair Academic and Social Achievement, Smith College
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.-Social anxiety disorder
affects hundreds of thousands of American children each year:
as another school term opens, they invent reasons why they cannot
attend school, refuse to ride the school bus and resist play
dates or after-school activities.
"In my clinical work, I've encountered children who would
hide in the restroom instead of entering the school cafeteria
for lunch hour," recounts Patricia DiBartolo, an associate
professor of psychology at Smith College whose research focuses
on anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety disorder.
"In the classroom, these kids would desperately avoid speaking
out or reading aloud in class," she explains. "Some
would lug all their books with them throughout the day, rather
than stop at their lockers, where they might have to chat with
Nationally, one percent (nearly 400,000) of children between
ages 10 and 18 suffer from a clinical level of social anxiety
disorder, also known as social phobia, a psychiatric condition
brought on by an intense fear of being judged or scrutinized
by others. The disorder can result in severe social withdrawal
and deterioration of daily functioning.
If untreated, the symptoms of social phobia can increase over
time, DiBartolo says, hindering an individual's natural progress
and growth, eclipsing ambitions to attend college, form relationships
and pursue a career. Fortunately, DiBartolo notes, preemptive
treatment can make the difference between a life of daily turmoil
and one of confident accomplishment.
As the new school year begins, parents and teachers should be
observant of children's social behavior, watching over the course
of a month or two to see that they are able to meet the normal
challenges of the school day, such as interacting with peers,
developing relationships, speaking in class and approaching exams
without tears or undue anxiety.
If social dysfunction develops to a noticeable level in a child,
it may be time to obtain a clinical opinion. DiBartolo recommends
seeking out a mental health professional experienced in working
with children and adolescents.
Effective treatment for social phobia is widely available, DiBartolo
emphasizes, the most common form being cognitive-behavioral therapy,
a treatment in which children are gradually exposed to anxiety-producing
situations in which they can "practice" interacting
with some anxiety and then talk about the fears they confronted.
"Studies have found that this approach is quite effective
not only with adults but with kids and teens as well," notes
DiBartolo generally discourages parents from trying to mitigate
their child's anxiety personally, whether by sitting beside him
all day in class or following in the car behind the school bus.
Although this often helps children to be much more comfortable,
DiBartolo explains that it does not allow them to develop a sense
of confidence that they can confront and survive challenging
"In fact, children need to feel uncomfortable," she
says. "It's an important developmental milestone to recognize
that you can feel uncomfortable and actually function, that you
can master your fears and go forward."
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Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost
liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state
and 55 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's
college in the country.