The beginning of the school year is as exciting as it is stressful. A new school year, for parents and children alike, means meeting new people, establishing new routines, and finding ways to do it all in the span of a day. There is an additional layer of nuance that comes to the surface if you have an introverted child. You can ask yourself questions like:
“Is this just introversion or social anxiety?”
“Should I help my son make friends?”
“When do I talk to your teacher or doctor?”
Alma Therapy therapist Mary Borys, LCSW, helps unpack some of the biggest questions about your child’s introversion. That is, how to know when introversion may be a sign of something bigger and how to best support an introverted child.
Related: 13 Routines and Activities to Get Kids Ready for Back to School
Because introversion, social anxiety, and shyness can seem so similar, having clear definitions for each is the first step in evaluating the best ways to support a child.
Introversion in children, just like in adults, can manifest as wanting to play alone or work independently (and enjoy it that way), according to the American Psychological Association.
“The biggest difference between introversion and social anxiety comes down to contentment,” explains Borys. “Children can be very well adjusted and happy with an introverted temperament, in the face of social anxiety that causes disturbances in their well-being.”
Is it introversion or social anxiety?
Some key differences to keep in mind when assessing whether your child is an introvert or navigating social anxiety comes down to how they play.
“An introverted child is fine with a few friends, often prefers more individual play, and may feel tired after large group social events or need to rest more often after school or playdates,” Borys explains. “Alternatively, a child with social anxiety has a desire to participate or form more friendships, but he feels overwhelmed and feels he can’t.”
Age can also influence how your introversion comes across. For young children, behaviors like hiding behind a parent or avoiding eye contact can be key signs, according to Borys. For older children, some gestures usually consist of avoiding participating in school activities or watching others play from the sidelines. The caveat, as mentioned earlier, is that children find pleasure in being alone rather than longing to be more involved with others.
According to Borys, the duration of the behavior can also help parents distinguish between introversion, social anxiety, or nervousness at the start of the school year.
“The nerves of the beginning of the school year are exactly that: present in the beginning of the school year,” says Borys. “Over time (I usually like to use six weeks as a good marker), as the students become more familiar with each other, the nerves should subside.”
If they don’t relax, seeking medical support is one avenue for concerned parents. Some signs that the nerves of the beginning of the school year are a little bigger are sleep interruptions, anxiety or depression, fixation on the perceptions that others have of them, great emotional outbursts before social situations and persistent psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches, according to Borys. . These are all signs that a little extra support, whether from your PCP or a therapist, can benefit your child.
Related: How to Raise an Introvert
How to help an introverted child make friends
As parents, the best way to help your child begins by paying attention to who they are and the signs that they may be struggling. Introversion is not a character flaw. Instead, it’s about noticing your child’s relationship with him.
“Some red flags that a child might be emotionally affected by the struggle to make friends would be if you notice a general change in your mood, if you name and verbalize feeling lonely, or if your child is teased or bullied by others.” Boris explains.
According to Borys, if you’re trying to help your child navigate their introversion and make friends, you should:
- Avoid pressuring your child to make friends quickly
- Tell them stories about times when you had trouble making friends and what you did.
- Schedule playdates for them in your own home so the environment feels familiar.
“For younger children, when you have a playdate or socialize, let them stay close to you at first or help facilitate play before stepping back to allow them to explore and take risks,” explains Borys.
Align your approach with your child’s teachers
If your child is having a difficult time in school, there are ways you can work with his teacher to help create the best possible scenario for him.
“Communicate, communicate, communicate. Parents, let your teacher know if a student is an introvert, as well as any likes and dislikes he can use to create a more comfortable environment,” Borys encourages.
“Tell each other what is working at home and at school and use consistent language to normalize introversion and support anxiety. Please continue to build self-esteem and confidence through positive affirmations and by naming other positive qualities that each individual child embodies.”
If you’re a teacher hoping to help your students navigate introversion and make friends, Borys suggests “having regular conversations in your classroom about social dynamics and interactions.”
Taking on new experiences can be overwhelming, exciting, and have its own learning curves, no matter how old or how old you are. Remaining attentive and patient as your introverted child moves through a new school year is the best gift you can give her.