Back in 2013, the book Quiet by Susan Cain started a conversation about the value in being someone who is, well, quiet.
According to Cain’s book, roughly one-third of people classify as introverted—the ones who “prefer to listening rather than speaking; who innovate but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams.” It’s introverts, after all, like Rosa Parks, Chopin and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak who have made many great contributions to society.
So why do we still get put out when someone says about our child, “He (or she) is so quiet!”
In a world that’s always talking, children who tend to be quiet or shy may be more accepted now but are still a cause of worry for many parents. “Will my child have friends?” we wonder. “Can my child be successful—and happy—as an introvert?”
“The answer, absolutely, is yes,” said Dr. Christopher Drescher, a child psychologist who works primarily with teens in his practice at Children’s Hospital of Georgia at Augusta University.
It’s only when shyness overlaps with actual social anxiety that parents should really worry.
Is it shyness or something more?
Children and teens who are shy may be happy and comfortable playing on their own or one on one with a friend, and dislike loud groups as they are too exhausting. Although they may not like presenting in front of large groups or meeting new people, they can do it without too much personal stress.
While shyness and social anxiety aren’t the same, they’re probably related, Drescher said. “Children can be shy without having social anxiety, but children who have social anxiety will exhibit shyness.”
Where social anxiety differs is in how much it affects your child’s quality of life.
“Children with social anxiety have significant functional impairments,” Drescher said. “Physically, their heart and breath rates are affected. Mentally, their thoughts are focused on negative social judgments, and behaviorally, they will avoid or escape situations where they have to perform socially in some way.”
Drescher said it’s a matter of degree. “Shyness or introversion is normal human behavior, while social anxiety is extreme and impairing,” he said.
For example, a child or teen with social anxiety may not be able to give a presentation or answer questions in class. He or she may have limited or no friends because of an inability to speak with anyone at school. Someone with this disorder will avoid participating in sports or other activities they’re interested in because they are concerned about social judgment.
So what can parents do?
Although the median age for social anxiety disorder is 15 years old, it can happen earlier. Children of parents who are socially anxious themselves have a higher risk, although this is not the key factor in determining if a child will have social anxiety.
What can help is for parents to model effective ways to socialize, even starting when children are toddlers. “For children who are naturally shy or introverted, seeing their parents engage socially can help children learn how to interact with others,” Drescher said.
This doesn’t mean that you or your child must be the “life of the party,” but being able to carry on conversations with others and be comfortable in social settings are skills that are important for children to learn.
“So if parents have some level of social anxiety themselves, they may want to address some of their own issues so they can be a positive model for their kids,” Drescher said.
If a child is shy, parents can try to see things from their child’s point of view.
“For example, around the holidays, telling your child that the family will be at grandma’s all week, going out doing 20 different activities during that week and ending with your child holding a piano recital—that’s not a reasonable expectation for a shy child,” Drescher said. “What you might say instead is that while you understand being around a lot of people is stressful, it’s important, because it’s family time. And you might say that on the evening of Christmas, your child can go to the back room to play with toys on their own for some time to rest and restore, and you’ll make sure their cousins won’t go back and bother them.”
Simple things like encouraging your child to order their own food or orchestrating structured play with another child, such as doing a craft project, can be positive experiences that build confidence. Encouraging your child’s interest in sports or singing can also another way to help keep a shy child from progressing into socially anxious one.
However, for parents of children and teens with full-blown social anxiety disorder, it’s important to get help from a therapist. Therapy can help your child address the negative thoughts that are preventing him or her from being more social. In that setting, your child can also safely role-play with the therapist and practice social skills. That could then advance to practicing skills in a group setting with peers.
“For children with social anxiety, there can be this great sense of accomplishment when engaging in social behavior,” Drescher said. “And for adolescents, it’s not surprising that there’s this normal fear of what peers think of you. At the same time, a key aspect of being a teenager is having friends. So pushing through the barrier of social anxiety and connecting with people – most adolescents enjoy working on these issues and there’s real excitement when they make progress.”
Let’s start talking
The Children’s Hospital of Georgia has one of the area’s largest child and adolescent psychiatry and psychology programs, with specialists who can help your child with the social anxiety. For an appointment, call 706-721-9331.