School plays, dances and family holiday gatherings make December an enjoyable month for many children. But the focus on social events can be distressing for others.

Children who suffer from social phobia are so excessively shy that they often cannot make friends or perform well in school. They are afraid to talk with teachers or peers and to participate in sports or other activities. Attending parties and other social events can be terrifying.

The University of Central Florida’s Anxiety Disorders Clinic is recruiting children ages 8 to 17 who need help conquering social phobia and learning how to interact with others. Children may be eligible for free treatment sessions at the clinic, as well as restaurant, miniature golf and bowling outings with children who are comfortable in social situations.

“We’re teaching children the skills they need and getting them to practice in real-life settings,” said Psychology Professor Deborah Beidel, who directs the clinic. “Otherwise, they get really good at interacting with others in our clinic and are not comfortable when they leave.”

Under Beidel’s direction, trained researchers and graduate students work with children and their parents to overcome social phobia. More than 70 percent of the children overcome their fears after 12 weeks of treatment and outings, Beidel said.

Parents should seek help for children with social phobia before they become teenagers. Adolescents who haven’t learned how to overcome their social fears sometimes will consume alcohol to relax, setting up a lifelong pattern of using alcohol to alleviate their social distress, Beidel said.

Treatment is the most effective way to help a child conquer excessive shyness – particularly for children 11 and younger. Studies suggest that children who develop the social phobia before they are 11 years old rarely overcome it without treatment, Beidel said.

Parents can follow other steps to help their children this holiday season. Beidel suggests that parents let their children set the pace for approaching others. Do not force a child to talk with someone. Also, parents should praise their children for “brave behavior” and facing a fear if they attempt to socialize with others, no matter how it turns out.

Parents who are interested in learning more about the free treatment programs available and whether their children may be eligible can call 407-823-3910.

The Anxiety Disorders Clinic also is seeking socially comfortable children to interact with the children with social phobia at the weekly outings. They are paid for their time, and the cost of their outings is covered by the clinic. Participating also counts toward high schools’ community service requirements. For more information, call 407-823-3910.

$500,000 NIH Grant to Help Expand ‘Real-World’ Therapy to Virtual World

While treating Central Florida youth, Beidel also wants to help other psychiatrists and psychologists effectively aid children with social phobia. They may not have the staff resources or the time to recruit groups of children to participate in activities.

With a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Beidel will be working with Atlanta-based software company Virtually Better to develop a guided online simulation that will help children with social phobia practice interacting with others in real-life scenarios.

In the simulation, children can practice interacting with classmates and teachers with different personalities. An early task might be saying “Hi. How are you doing today?” to an outgoing, popular girl who greets the child. Later, the child might have to start a conversation herself or break into a small group’s conversation.

Clinicians would work directly with patients on the simulations at the office and then provide homework assignments for children to complete under their parents’ supervision.

Beidel is leading the study with doctoral student Nina Wong. The first year will involve working with Virtually Better to develop the new software, and the second year will include trials with children with social phobia.