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Monday, April 04, 2005

Is Your Teenager SAD? Social Anxiety Disorder and Muslim Teenagers


You come home and find your teenager in a fiery fit over how her schoolmates made fun of her new outfit that she had spent hours choosing. She screams that she is better off alone, and runs to her room.

You are hosting the 'Eid ul Fitr gathering at your home. Your teenage son refuses to come out of his room to greet relatives and family friends. He complains that everyone looks at him in a funny way. He is afraid that they are always watching his every move.

One of the least diagnosed conditions that teenagers face is social anxiety disorder (SAD). Reading about SAD among Muslim teenagers may come as a surprise to many of us because of the emphasis on family and community life in Islam.

The family unit is of central importance in Islam because it is the family that prepares children to be active participants in society. And we know that Islam encourages the believers to pray in congregation, to work together, to share a meal with family or friends. So is this discussion about SAD even relevant to Muslim youth?

In the United States, SAD is reportedly the third largest psychological problem. Nearly 15 million Americans are said to suffer from this disorder. A high number of referrals to mental health professionals often result in the misdiagnosis of SAD patients as being clinically depressed. This misdiagnosis is partly the result of insufficient discussion and research about SAD among professionals, and partly due to an inability of patients to verbalize their condition. Often times, secondary symptoms serve as better indicators during assessment.

Interestingly enough, most of the research on the treatment of SAD indicates that it is not a medical condition in that it requires therapy. Cognitive-behavior therapy has proven to yield the best results, with the number of sessions ranging anywhere between twelve and thirty depending on the severity of the condition.

A Closer Look at SAD Among Muslim Children

Given the high tendency in our society towards individualistic lifestyles, it is likely that more and more people will experience this psychological problem. The scenarios presented at the beginning of this article shed some light on potential trouble spots that parents should be on the lookout for.

Even among Muslims, various shifts in development and in family and community life can account for an onset of SAD among children. For example, fearing embarrassment is common among teenagers who long to be accepted among their peers. Muslim youth, particularly young girls who have begun to wear hijab, may be especially vulnerable to experiencing feelings of not fitting in or of sticking out in the crowd.

Even when no one is watching them, people who suffer from SAD often feel as if they are the focus of everyone's attention - not in an arrogant manner, but to the contrary, they feel as though everyone is judging or making fun of them.

In the first scenario, the young girl who concluded that she is better off alone is, in reality, reacting in such a way to avoid potentially embarrassing situations in the future. If her parents do not respond appropriately the first time she expresses a profound fear of embarrassment, it is possible that this teen might begin to avoid being seen in public. It is important that her parents do their best to immediately de-construct the situation, and help her realize that she need not fear appearing in public. Parents must actively work to reassure their children that their uniqueness contributes to the diversity of their schools and communities.

Should a fear of embarrassment become excessive, parents are strongly advised to seek out a same-gender Muslim professional to work with the child over a period of time. Again, SAD is not a medical problem, but is rather a psychological condition that requires professional intervention. Parents are encouraged not to be impatient or force their children into the situations that they are obviously trying hard to avoid. And neither should parents enable their children to simply give in to their fears of embarrassment and avoid public settings entirely.

A common phenomenon among Muslim families is that when children reach the teenage years, they begin to seek exemption from participation in masjid activities and other both informal and formal get-togethers. While very few teenagers consider the activities of non-teens as cool or enjoyable, there is reason for concern when a teenager shows great anxiety whenever the possibility of being in a social situation arises. Also, sudden shifts in behavior and emotions can be indicative of an anxiety with social situations. Parents must monitor such situations, and look for patterns of reaction from their teens.

A common behavior among teenagers with SAD is that they find great satisfaction in reading books, watching television alone, or merely staying away from others. Again, parents are not encouraged to force their teens to be active participants in social situations. High levels of anxiety coupled with the fear of embarrassment may drive a teenager to become further reclusive. It is better to talk a situation out with a teenager, and attempt to come to some compromise. For example, a family might agree that the teenager attend the first half of a gathering, and then go and read or do whatever he or she wants to do. Slowly, and with professional help, Insha'Allah, the teenager will come to terms with his or her anxiety. But the process must be allowed to unfold - however long it takes.

The adolescent years are difficult to begin with. It is even tougher being a Muslim adolescent in a predominantly non-Muslim society. As such, parents are encouraged to establish and maintain regular communication with their children, and to do their best to assist them in becoming stable and productive members of our society. And, in the case of suspected SAD, parents cannot assume that their teens will just grow out of their fears of embarrassment and their tendencies to avoid social situations. Rather, through careful monitoring, patience and the involvement of professionals, it is entirely possible that anxious teenagers can be helped to live normal lives.

There is no reason to fear professional intervention as a precautionary measure. At the first warning signs, rather than wait for a teen to suffer from SAD-ness, parents should immediately seek out professional assistance to help put him or her back on the road to an enjoyable and healthy experience of growing up.



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