While many children experience social anxiety in certain settings, approximately 4 percent experience it so severely that it profoundly affects their lives. They are simply unable to participate in normal social activities.
This debilitating anxiety experienced by children is the focus of a new book by Dr. Christopher Kearney, professor and director of clinical training in the department of psychology, who serves as the director of the UNLV School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic.
Kearney, who based the book in part on his work at the clinic, delves into the issues involved in this complex problem that often incapacitates the affected children in social settings and deeply concerns their parents.
“Of all the expectations we have regarding our children, a basic one is that they will enjoy being with other people,” Kearney writes. “We hope our children will be generally popular and well liked by classmates, happy to speak to relatives, respectful of others, compliant to adult requests, willing and able to have friends, enthusiastic about attending social events, and cheery and confident with peers.”
Kearney notes, however, that many of the children he sees at the UNLV School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic have “such strong social anxiety that they have great trouble making friends, going to school, or even speaking to people in public.”
To compound the matter, Kearney says, full appreciation of the problem by the psychology community is relatively recent, dating from the 1980s. Even today, he notes, the prevalence of childhood social phobia is unclear.
In his book, Kearney describes assessment and treatment procedures that he and his colleagues have developed at the clinic and elsewhere. Kearney, who opens the book with a set of examples of the kinds of problems children experience, goes on to define several kinds of social phobias and related disorders. He then reviews the literature relating to the various personality traits–such as introversion, shyness, behavioral inhibition, social withdrawal, and social and performance anxiety–that, in extreme forms, become social phobia. Psychological assessment tools and treatment strategies follow.
Kearney became interested in the psychology of young people as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Binghamton, while working with youths with autism. His interest in the area expanded in graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany, where he assessed and treated children with anxiety disorders and school refusal behavior at an anxiety disorders clinic.
“I have always enjoyed the challenge of working with children and adolescents,” he says, adding that he hopes the book helps the psychology community better understand the disorders. “To see kids becoming more comfortable socially – going to school, making friends, doing these things for the first time or doing them on a consistent basis for the first time – is very gratifying.”