Kids, like adults, can sometimes shy away from common social interaction. But is a kid who hide behind a parent’s leg or refuses to leave their room when company comes an introverted child or simply shy? The distinction, it turns out, really matters. Because the way a parent interacts with an introverted child needs to be different than the way they address a shy child. And it’s important to know the difference.
Recognizing an Introverted Child
Introversion isn’t solely about how comfortable someone is around others. It’s also contingent on how one recharges after that interaction. Because for some, being social is emotionally taxing, even if they find the interactions themselves pleasant.
“From an inborn personality perspective, some individuals, regardless of age, are simply more comfortable alone or with a small number of close and trusted others,” explains Dr. Jennifer Weber, director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics Behavioral Health.
As with all aspects of personality, children are born with certain characteristics — including their level of extroversion or introversion. Even as babies, they may be easy-to-warm up, adventurous and gregarious, or caution and standoffish, or somewhere in between. But the experiences they have as they grow can modify their behavior patterns. While a child may be inclined toward specific social tendencies, they still grow and evolve over time. Some variables can be controlled by parents, and others can’t. It’s not always possible to tell which is which.
“It is always Nature and nurture,” Weber emphasizes. “Never nature or nurture.”
Recognizing Shyness in Kids
Serious discomfort in meeting new people should not be confused with introversion. Traits like turning away from new people, and refusing to say hello when introduced is really more an indication of shyness, according to Weber.
“Shyness refers to someone who has some anxiety related to interacting with or being exposed to new people or social situations,” she says. “There are plenty of introverts who are comfortable in social settings. They just recharge with alone time and often seek solitude to replenish their energy.”
An introverted child could thrive socially at school but need time away from other people when they get back home. It’s not that they’re putting on a front at school, they just require some time and space to rebuild their capacity to be with other people after a very social day.
A shy kid, however, is going to be consistently drawn to more solitary activities and will need to be purposefully drawn into interactions with others. Since social situations create anxiety and discomfort, they will need to be equipped with tools to navigate interactions with others in a healthy way.
How to Help Introverted Children Manage Social Settings
Parents can support introverted children by creating quiet physical space. That may require helping more extroverted family members learn to read cues that an introverted sibling needs a break from interactions. If physical space is limited, creative solutions like giving an introverted child the freedom to shut others out by putting on headphones for a period of time can provide a virtual buffer between them and those in close proximity.
It’s also helpful for parents of introverted kids to track how long they are expecting their kids to go between opportunities to recharge. Finding pockets throughout the day is important, though not always feasible depending on the family schedule. Taking a zoomed-out view of the calendar and recognizing when your kid could use chunks of time as large as an entire day to recharge after. But parents should also be aware of more serious social struggles.
“Children who are struggling socially can often be found alone off to the side while other children are huddled in a group or breaking into small groups,” says Weber. “They often complain about somatic discomforts like headaches and bellyaches. They may also seek out a familiar adult or cry.”
As they get more self-aware, these responses can start a cycle of distress that is difficult to break out of. Being stressed out by people is hard. Being stressed out because you know you’re going to be stressed out by people is harder. Helping your child understand what they are feeling so that they can identify signs of stress on their own and communicate them to others lays the groundwork for them to use calming techniques and have an awareness of their limits.
Weber encourages parents to help children to label feelings such as “worry” or “fear” and pre-plan the coping strategies they can use. “Encourage them to seek out one familiar friend you know will be there and reassure them about expectations,” she says. “Help them think ahead about how long do you plan to stay in a social setting and what they can do afterward to recharge.”
Supporting an introverted child as they acclimate to social settings is a difficult dance for parents. Some may even feel anxiety or embarrassment when their kid struggles in social situations. But patience pays off.
“All children will have to contend with social obligations, but being social is also part of what should make childhood fun,” Weber says. “If they have a number of strategies to use to take breaks from being social when they feel overwhelmed or ready ice breakers to use when they meet someone new, children should hopefully come to feel that some social situations feel more manageable.” Dr. Weber says.