A principal standing in the hallway says, "You are one of my favorite students!" In class, a smart girl says, "You are the nicest person in our class!"
Many children would smile and eagerly return those compliments, but some with social anxiety may be too terrified to respond.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida's Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better want to give more children with social anxiety the practice they need to become comfortable in social situations. They have developed a new, one-of-a-kind computer simulation program that enables children to interact with avatars playing the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal.
The simulation, designed for children ages 8 to 12, allows clinicians to play the roles of the avatars while the children sit at a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely. The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and answering questions.
"These kids come in and say, 'I don't know how to make a friend,'" said Deborah Beidel, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and a psychology professor at UCF. "We have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people."
The National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, provided a $500,000 grant to fund the development of the software and a 12-week study that will begin this summer. The study will involve 30 Central Florida children ages 8 to 12.
Many children are nervous and slow to warm up in new social situations, but those with social anxiety disorders have severe distress that doesn't go away, Beidel said.
"If a fear is so severe that it prevents a child from doing something he or she should be doing, such as going to school, playing on a sports team, being in a dance recital, going to birthday parties or making friends, then a parent should call a mental health professional," she said.
Under Beidel's leadership, the UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic has treated children with anxiety disorders for five years. The clinic offers what Beidel calls the "gold standard" of treatments. Children with anxiety disorders are paired with socially comfortable peers for outings to places such as bowling alleys, restaurants and miniature golf courses.