Ask An Expert / Anxiety

I’m 13, and I think I have social anxiety. My parents say I have disruptive behavior. How can I tell which I have?

It's very possible to have both

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Interim Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

I'm 13, and I think I have social anxiety. My parents say I have disruptive behavior. I want to know how can I tell which one I have.

First, it’s awesome that you want to know more about these things, and I’d love to help, though of course I can’t give a diagnosis without knowing what’s really going on.

When I think of disruptive behavior in a 13 year old, I think of getting into trouble at school, breaking rules, angry outbursts, not doing homework, impulsivity, being defiant and/or having tantrum-like meltdowns.

When I think of social anxiety, I think of being more than normally anxious about some common social situations. Everyone is nervous before giving a presentation in class or performing in a concert, that sort of thing. But social anxiety is when you feel so worried about doing or saying something embarrassing, about looking stupid or silly or dumb, that you can’t do a lot of things that are pretty normal for kids your age. It’s when you feel so anxious that you will look or act in an embarrassing way that you’re paralyzed, or avoid things like talking in class, eating in front of other people, or writing something that other people will read.

When you feel this nervous, it’s not a good feeling, so you might go to some lengths to avoid situations that trigger it. That could include things like going to parties, taking the school bus, going into the lunch room, hanging out with a group, just walking down the hall.

So social anxiety can look like disruptive behavior if you act out in order to get out of these situations. If school is very stressful — if you vividly imagine people laughing or talking about you or judging you — you might give your parents a very hard time to avoid school, you might skip school. You might throw a tantrum to avoid going somewhere that makes you extremely anxious. You might get upset and lose it when cornered into something you find very distressing. And it’s possible that your parents or teachers, who may not know what you’re feeling, might interpret this behavior as being oppositional.

It’s great that you’re asking us about this but have you talked to your parents? It would be good to let them know how you’re feeling — talk about what seems to you to be social anxiety, and see whether those feelings might be leading to what they call disruptive behavior.

This definitely sounds like a situation that could get better if you talk about it.

If you talk about the feelings you’re having problems with, and the behavior they have a problem with, maybe you can work out something for you as well as them. And if you do have social anxiety, getting some help could alleviate a lot of the pain you’re feeling. Good luck!