Social anxiety in high school

Teaching teenagers and getting to know them is fascinating, and often makes me think about my own teenage years, and how defining they were for me.

When I was a teenager, I was extremely performance-oriented. I felt that I had to be the best student in class or even in school. What I enjoyed most about school were the exams, especially those that were more difficult than usual.

At the same time, I was extremely afraid to embarrass myself in any way. For this reason, I almost never said anything in class, even if I had elaborate answers and contributions to discussions in my head, because I was always fearing that people would laugh at me. At some point, I started to have problems to read texts aloud to the class out of fear of making a mistake or sounding strange. I began to choke on my words. I remember thinking every morning about in which class a teacher might ask me to read, and dreading it. I was not bullied, but I bullied myself.

I wonder how the teachers saw me. New teachers were usually surprised by my test results and asked me to participate more. I said yes, and I wanted to improve, but I continued to be silent.

I don’t think I looked motivated in class, because most of the time I was either afraid, or then started to get very bored, because things were moving so slowly and it is very boring if you do not participate, mostly. I did not know, as I know now, how much teachers can see how you feel in your face, and how easy it is for them to see an unhappy face as a judgement of their teaching.

I had three friends, but if they were absent, I felt totally alone and foreign in my class. I almost never talked to anyone except those friends, and since they were all female, I practically never talked to a male student, which in retrospect seems strange. When the friends were not around during lunch, I was horrified, because I did not dare to sit with the other students in my class, and I ate somewhere alone and was so ashamed of being seen alone that I almost cried. In breaks, I would sometimes hide on the toilet if my friends were not around.

In short, I had relatively serious social anxiety as a teenager, and I had no idea about it, and neither my teachers nor my parents ever realized this. Even when it became impossible for me to read, no teacher every checked on me. Some had mercy and stopped asking me, others did not care. I never really expected a teacher to ask what was going on, although I did hope for it.

Of course, all this meant that I did not really learn to discuss with others, or handle disagreements, or risking embarrassment by saying my opinion, or interact with different people. In fact, the thing that surprised me most about real adult life was how different people are, and to this day standing up for myself, and navigating disagreement, especially with self-confident people, is very hard for me.

And now I look at my students, and observe how many of them interact with each other warmly and well, and are not afraid to ask stupid questions. But in each class I also see 2-3 unhappy teenagers with long faces, and I notice that they annoy me a little bit, because it is hard to be enthusiastic as a teacher when I look at them. So I ignore them.

And that, of course, is what my teachers probably did with me. I guess in some ways I tried to be the best student to get them to notice, and like me anyway, to show them that internally, I cared, even if I was unable to show it in class.

In our only lecture about psychology that we are required to take as teachers, we had, to my disappointment, only one single lesson about special difficulties and needs that students might have, and the only two that were mentioned were anorexia and being highly gifted, as if no other problems existed. What if teachers would learn to recognize problems like depression, social anxiety, and if dominant kids terrorize the rest of the class? Why is it that we teach children all sorts of obscure knowledge, but not that if they are perpetually unhappy or scared, someone professional outside of school and of their family can help them? Why do we insist on people learning to understand the details of chemical processes but totally don’t mind if they are years behind their peers in terms of self-confidence and speaking in front of others, like I was? Increasingly I see in how many ways school failed to prepare me for life, and instead fueled and strengthened my obsession with performance and test results, and gave me the idea that if I only worked very hard, I could achieve anything without actually having to stand up and risk embarrassment in front of others. This way of thinking got me through a Master’s degree in Physics easily. But now I know that is not how real life works. At all.

I think a teacher that would have taken the time to talk to me for 15 minutes, and who would have been trained in recognizing social anxiety, could have made an immense difference. So why is it that we are not trained in doing exactly that, and instead spend hours and hours in learning yet another obscure party trick in how to make a lesson exciting, in the vain hope of making even those two sad and unhappy faces in the last row light up?

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12 Responses to Social anxiety in high school

  1. B.S. says:

    Wow, we were quite similar at that age!
    My social anxiety was maybe not as strong as yours. I didn’t mind people at highschool seeing me alone because that meant that I was enough self-confident so as not to need the shelter of the group. In fact, in the last year of highschool I mostly gave up all friendships… but the truth is that I was really not that self-confident.
    I was normally not bullied either, but I never participated in class because I was terrified to stand in front of people (still I am). Just as you, sometimes I was completely bored and even though my grades were good, my teachers tended to think that I did not want to bother to take an active part in the class or make a bigger effort to participate. Once they even told my parents….
    However, it is surprising for me to see that I am not the only one who became unable to read outloud! It scared me to the bone and I still feel some fear when I have to do it. I do not know why, but I really thought I was the only one!

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! I have never actually heard from anyone with the same reading-phobia, so your comment made me feel less alone. 🙂 Yes, it is just a strange, very artificial situation…everyone staring at a sheet, someone reading what everyone can read on their own anyway… brr… While I normally don’t mind talking in front of an audience now, I would still hate it to had to read to them. On the plus side I am never tempted to just read a slide to the audience during a talk, which is anyway very annoying for the audience.

  2. drinkteaa says:

    As a teacher, can teachers really tell if a student is stressed or sad? I’m in high school right now and I feel like most teachers tend to overlook the quiet students in class and don’t put in any effort to know the students that they believe are feeling alone. Of course there is no blame though, because teachers can be incredibly busy with that many students.

    • zinemin says:

      The students I mean just sit there with unhappy faces almost all the time, and interact very little with others. I cannot overlook this even if I try. But indeed, unfortunately full-time teachers probably have no time and energy to worry about individual quiet and unhappy-looking students.

    • zinemin says:

      Btw, I do not know what to do to help those students…. do you have a suggestion for me?

      • Phillip says:

        I work in the adult learning world and have often encountered quiet students, and typically I only have 2-3 days (length of the class) to determine whether their quietness is due to a dissatisfaction with the training, or introversion.

        I will try to find opportunities to engage one-on-one with those students (away from the pack), during breaks or before class, and try to understand what makes them interested in the subject, by giving them a less regimented “space” to share their views on the course topics and explain how it relates to other things they are interested in, so I can see if they are keen on embracing the material or they are actually not enjoying the course. Sometimes I’ve found that they are in fact very engaged in the course, and their body language is just sending a false signal that something is wrong, when there isn’t. Their quietness is okay with me, as long as there isn’t something else they want that they aren’t getting from me.

        This actually reflects my own body language sometimes, because I internalize a lot of my thoughts and feelings by nature, so I can often carry a blank expression when attending a meeting or watching a presentation. I’ll often cross my arms when I’m thinking intently about something the presenter just said, and because this type of body language can be perceived as me being bored or angry, I’ll force myself to extend my arm up and hold my chin at alternating intervals 🙂

  3. drinkteaa says:

    Yeahh, it’s really difficult! What I find the best are the teachers that always smile at every student and ask how they are. A student can definitely tell if a teacher genuinely cares. If you see a student looking sad or something, don’t whisper and act really concerned because it puts the student on the spot, just smile and ask enthusiastically how their day was, like a friend(:

  4. I was the definite opposite as a teenager. Bumbling responses without fully thinking them through. Excited to participate and share. Luckily in high school I had friends who had social anxiety and they always kept my perspective grounded, that just because others weren’t like me didn’t mean they didn’t care or know things.

    As a teacher what I did is I never made participation part of the grade. Ever. EVER! Participation is based on free will. And I can do my best to persuade you and goad you on, but I would never lower the grade of a student for not participating. When I noticed certain kids just absolutely refused to share, I start by having a heart to heart with them outside of class. Asking them things like “Am I doing anything wrong?” “What could I do to make you feel more comfortable?” etc. Once I’ve determined they’re not quiet because I’ve offended them or they really hate my class I would ask them to write their answers in their notebooks. (Teacher tip: Always give sufficient time for most kids to answer. If you ask a question, don’t just call on the first hand that is raised. Say “I’ll give you exactly 90 seconds to think of your answer” That gives kids who struggle more time to think, and smart quiet kids time to write down their answers.) I would look at their answer, if it was GREAT I would put a big check mark next to it. Over time that builds confidence. Then I would ask them if they would be willing to read their answer that I’ve already put the check mark next to, so they know without any doubt they’re sharing a winning answer. If they said no, that they don’t want to read their answer out loud, I would then ask if it was ok if I read their answer out loud to the class. I always respected their wishes. It would take months of building trust and respect. Most quiet kids would show improvement. But it is important that a teacher not take a kids quiet as a sign they’re a bad teacher.

    And as a side note: Confidence is a bullshit concept. People have mistaken me for confident. I’m not confident, I’m brave. There’s difference. I often think I’m a stupid, talentless, mediocre asshole. But I participate anyway. I try anyway. When I was little my mom would tell us, even if you’re not the best, keep trying. And I think I took that motto to heart. I’m not sure if confidence actually exists or if its just trust and courage that people see.

    Zinemin I always love reading your blogs! They really make me think about my life because they’re so thoughtful. (What’s interesting is I can feel myself judging myself right now as a crappy two-bit blogger that can never compare to your level of depth and authenticity. But I’m gonna keep trying.) Thanks girl!

    • zinemin says:

      I love your way of handling this. I would have profited very much from this as a student, since I was just afraid of giving a wrong answer, and I would have participated happily if the teacher had told me beforehand that my answer was right. I need to try this out.
      Yes, your insight about confidence is really important… Don’t wait for the fear to go away, but do what you want or need to do anyway, despite the fear. Confidence is perhaps in the end not confidence in one’s talents and specialness, but confidence that even if you mess up, life will go on, and you will be able to handle it. That is something I am still trying to learn, and I admire people who have the courage to experiment and make mistakes… Not that I don’t make mistakes, but my mistakes are very often caused by excessively trying not to make them instead of a feeling of “let’s try this!”
      Thanks so much for your nice comments about my blog! 🙂 I love your blog too and admire your writing, and your comments are often eye-opening to me…

  5. I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award! Congrats! And thanks for being an inspiration to me.

  6. Pingback: Join the Pack | The Beautiful Ugly Duckling

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