Is Your Child Shy or Introverted? Some Thoughts for Parents.

Darrell’s avatar

People often confuse shyness and introversion. Confusing the two can have some important outcomes if a parent of a child doesn’t know the difference.

In a shyness group I once ran, a lot of people would come in with a great deal of pain because of their fear and social anxiety. But once in a while, someone would sneak in convinced they were shy because people had told them that all their lives. They clearly had the impression there was something wrong with them. But they didn’t stay around long because all they needed was someone to give them permission to be who they were in reality – introverts.

The rest of the group gladly provided the service of granting them permission. These pseudo-shy individuals would soon recognize that they didn’t have any of the problems that a truly shy person has to contend with. Time-outs were part of their normal routine. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line – possibly from a parent –, they had been subjected to the opinions of others about how they should behave.

Shyness is a fear of social situations and other people. Introversion differs from shyness in that it is a preference for spending time alone. People who are introverted usually experience a profound feeling of exhaustion if they have to spent a lot of time in the company of others or in a noisy environment.

While sometimes shyness is stubborn, with proper intervention, an individual can grow beyond it and lose their anxiety about being around others. Often, young children will grow out of this in time on their own, particularly when socializing becomes almost essential in adolescence. Shyness can be experienced by a child as being anything from mildly irksome to being quite painful. It can softly color a life or seriously impact one depending on its intensity. We have the phrase “painfully shy” because it can be difficult for some children.

Introverted children, on the other hand, have a preference that is a quintessential part of who they are. They may adapt and behave less introverted at times, but they will probably need to retreat and enjoy some “me time” for the entirety of their lives. As they get older, they will usually tell you plainly that they aren’t afraid of others; they simply are more comfortable when they’re alone. While introverts may on occasion wistfully think that an extravert’s life might be more interesting, they will certainly not give up the pleasures they get from their quiet existence to pursue it.

However, when a parent sees all the children in the neighborhood excited about a child’s birthday party, they may feel concerned that their introverted child is not as excited. They may even worry there is something wrong. They may wonder if they are socially phobic or depressed. They may worry that this desire to be alone represents some huge developmental delay in their children. If it’s simple introversion, there is no need to worry about any of that.

Shy children typically want to be more social but they can’t muster the right behavior because they become so anxious and, consequently, paralyzed. Not so with introverts who just have quieter interests than their more extraverted peers. A parent will want to help a shy child, but support an introverted child.

To complicate things further, it’s possible for some children to be introverted and to struggle with shyness at the same time. It’s important that a parent in such a situation first understands that two “states” can exist at the same time, but that they have different natures. It’s also important that parents have age-appropriate conversations with their children so they can discover if these two things are happening simultaneously. Talking to the child’s pediatrician or a child therapist might be helpful if a parent feels any confusion.

Empathizing with either the child’s phobia or their introversion or both can help the child feel okay about who they are. Everyone feels better and more connected when someone makes an effort to show they understand them.

Caution should be taken here. Empathizing does not have anything to do with enabling shy children’s phobias. Recognizing is not the same as fostering shyness. It’s just showing understanding and letting the phobic children know that their parents understand them, notice their pain and are in their corners. Loving parents who display this manner of support help children by inching them away from the endless cycle of “feeling bad about feeling bad because they feel bad” toward a sense that they are accepted and loved regardless of their shyness. However, the greater goal will be to help shy children get through their agonizing pain and to help them gain a greater sense of control over their fears and their lives.

The problem parents of introverts often face is the same thing that introverts face in general. It’s an extraverts’ world, and it is sometimes necessary to play the extraverts’ game to get along well in it. Most cultures reward and admire extraverted behavior. People often stereotype the introverts as eccentrics. Parents may have trouble viewing their child as being “out of the norm”. But introverted children are not really that alone or unique. They just aren’t in the spotlight as much as extraverts, so they appear to be even rarer than they are. In the United States, for example, it’s estimated that 25% to 30% of the population are introverts (though that depends on the state – see our study). That’s one in four children – a minority, but large one. Using that estimate, there are more introverted children than left-handed children.

Besides offering encouragement and reassurances, how can a parent of an introvert support their child more?

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t try to over manage your child’s calendar. “Play dates” arranged by parents are popular these days. But is it the best thing for your introverted child? Allow them to tell you how much socializing they feel like doing. When it comes to being social, gently nudge them but don’t push them. Also, putting too many tutors, courses, sports activities or other activities can be hard for the introvert. Allow time in their schedules for unstructured time where they can be on their own. What appears to be “down time” to you may be some of your introverted child’s most productive periods.
  • Do teach them that sometimes we need to expand our comfort zones. Even introverted children should be polite and present at social events even when they might prefer to hide in their bedrooms instead. Depending on their choice of careers when they grow up, they may need to spend more time with others professionally than what they would naturally choose to do. Learning a bit of tolerance for living in an extraverts’ world early in their life may be beneficial later on. From an empathic position, take the position as a parent that introversion is never an excuse for rudeness or full disengagement.
  • Be aware that introverts often report being sensitive to noise or other abrasive stimuli. Some theorists believe they seek solitude to get away from these things. While you may not want to design your household around your introverted child, being aware they occasionally need escape from strong sensory input might be useful information. Who knows? Maybe turning off the TV and having family quiet time could benefit everyone.

If you’re an introvert, did your temperament cause you any difficulties growing up? If you’re a parent of an introverted child, what has that been like for you? Do you have any tips to add for other parents? Leave a comment and join the conversation.