Children rate talks by anxious peers negatively

Children suffering from social anxiety often have a rigid posture and voice, and they don’t dare to look at their audience when giving a talk. If your child suffers from social anxiety, what can you, as a parent, do? Developmental psychologist Michiel Westenberg, one of the leading researchers of the Leiden Social Anxiety Network, explains.

Extreme shyness

‘Social anxiety is an extreme form of shyness, which is always rooted in the fear of not being liked. They think things like "They don’t like me," "they look at me strangely," "I'm stupid". People suffering from social anxiety associate a negative self-image with negative expectations regarding the behaviour and judgment of others. This is partially justified, as our research into classroom talks has shown.’


Shocking discovery

‘In the course of this study, we asked children to give a talk at our Leiden lab. There was a virtual audience in attendance: children from a youth theatre school whom we filmed while they played at being an audience. We then told the children who were giving a talk that their talk would be filmed and then rated by children from another school whom they did not know.

‘We made what I consider to be a shocking discovery: the children who were asked to rate the talks turned out to have a negative judgment of the contents and presentation of the talks given by children with social anxiety. And they didn’t even need the five minutes of the talk to make up their mind, two minutes were enough.’

Rigid and avoiding

‘Socially anxious children behave differently. They often have a rigid posture and voice, while audiences prefer lively speakers. They don’t dare to look at their audience – but that is precisely what audiences want them to do. And they pause for a longer time during their talks, yet another thing that people don’t like. It is much better for your audience if there is more flow in your speech.’


Genes and environment

Social anxiety seems to be partially genetic and partially a result of the environment, but it is as yet unclear how the two are related. ‘In the brand-new Leiden Family Lab, flagship of the Health, Prevention and the Human Life Cycle research profile area, we study different generations within a single family. We get people to do tests, we ask about their specific experiences, and we have children and parents carry out tasks together, which allows us to observe their behaviour.’

In therapy

‘Some parents aggravate the genetically determined fragility of their children by letting them have their way if they don’t want to go to a school party, or a sports club. Other parents, on the other hand, send their children into therapy because they do not want them to have to deal with what they themselves went through. What causes such a difference in attitude? This is yet another aspect we want to gain insight into.’

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(1 June 2011)

Last Modified: 14-06-2011