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Shyness, social anxiety and introversion

We’re about a month into the school year now and kids and teenagers are likely starting to settle into their new classrooms, routines and peer groups. For some kids, especially those who are slow to warm up, shy, or anxious, it can be a great relief if and when they start to feel more comfortable. I often hear parents wish that their children could more easily join their peers and classmates, so this month’s post is about shyness, social anxiety and introversion.


Shyness and social anxiety are often talked about interchangeably, but they are quite different. Shyness typically goes away after a kid or teenager adjusts to being in a situation or begins to feel comfortable around new peers. Although most individuals with social anxiety experience symptoms of shyness, being shy does not mean you will have social anxiety.


Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a clinical anxiety disorder that is present before, during, and after social situations. One of the most important factors is that it causes significant distress, including physical symptoms of anxiety, worries and avoidance. Avoidance of social activities is also less common with those who are shy.


Introversion is something that is talked about a little bit less when it comes to kids. It’s typically considered to be a personality trait and on a spectrum with extroversion; meaning, that it’s not a categorical distinction (either you’re an introvert or an extrovert and you have to identify with a team, but, rather, that people fall somewhere on the dimension that ranges from introversion to extroversion). There is nothing wrong with either side, it’s really just where you find energy. For most people, regardless of their preferences, there are times where you fall on the outside of your comfort zone (e.g., a long social situation if you identify as an introvert) and the goal then is understanding that about yourself and doing what you need to do to tolerate the situation and make the most of it (because it’s important to note that introverts often really enjoy being social, they just also need alone time). Introversion is different from shyness and also from social anxiety. And, social anxiety is not just an extreme form of introversion. Lots of people who identify as introverted have strong social skills, enjoy being social and being with friends, they just also need time alone.


So, how do you support a kiddo or teenager who is shy, socially anxious or introverted? For a kid who is shy, recognize that this is okay and likely just a part of their temperament, and that they will join when they are ready. For an introverted kid, make sure they have space and time alone, and again, there is nothing wrong with this. Remember that school can be very draining for them. When a child or teenager has social anxiety, this can be very challenging and professional help may be warranted. There are a lot of interventions (such as exposure therapy) that can help.


If your child is shy, nervous or just generally apprehensive about an upcoming social situation, another strategy to support them is to prep them for it. Tell them what you know about the event (who will be there, what the other kids will be doing, who they could say hello to first), and also prepare them for the feelings they might have (“sometimes, at birthday parties, it seems like you feel a little nervous or cautious at the beginning, that’s okay, lots of kids feel nervous at birthday parties. You can join the activity when you’re ready).


Let’s also think about this: Have you ever gone to a new social situation as an adult, where you really only know one person? A work party with your partner? A gathering with other parents or neighbors that you didn’t know? A birthday party with a friend or co-worker?


For some adults, these situations are completely comfortable. For other adults, these situations require a slower start. Maybe, you’d say hello and observe for a few minutes, read the room, maybe you’d even feel nervous, but then if someone mentions one of your interests, you’d offer - “I’m a big Bills fan, too. Did you watch the game last night?”


The point is, there’s nothing wrong with taking a minute before jumping in. In fact, this can be really helpful and socially adaptive to take a minute to read the room without jumping right in. Even if you felt really comfortable, it’s unlikely you’d walk into a new social situation and say “Hi! I’m Kate! I love dogs, football and cooking! What are you guys talking about!?”


Lastly, one of the most well intentioned, but least effective, things adults say about kids who are shy, or slow to warm up is “he’s shy.” Think about those situations I described above. You’re at a work party with your partner, or a friend’s book club for the first time, and your friend or partner says “this is my friend, Kate. She’s shy.” and then your friend looks at you and says “just go talk to someone! Everyone is so nice” would that make you want to interact with more people immediately? Or, would you be completely and absolutely mortified? Instead, if you were nervous, or shy, you might want to just be able to hang with the person you went with until you felt more comfortable. So, it’s okay to give them a little space to adjust to the situation.


Thanks for reading!

Dr. Kate

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