How to tell if your child is shy or if it's actually anxiety

How can you tell the difference between age-appropriate social awkwardness and something more serious?

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An untidy line of preschool kids dressed in black bottoms and white tops belt out choir songs on stage.

My son faces the wrong way and chews his fingers.

I try to catch his eye and give him an encouraging smile, as I mime the familiar words which he has been singing loudly and confidently in our house for weeks. But he chooses to avoid my gaze, instead focusing on an errant hangnail.

As a former elementary school teacher, I’ve coaxed little children to stand tall, look at the audience and use a loud and proud voice in all manner of recitals, shows and plays. But now that I have my own reluctant performer, I’m second guessing myself and wondering exactly how to tell the difference between age-appropriate social awkwardness and something more serious?

Being shy vs. being an introvert
Parents often label their children as “shy” when they exhibit a totally acceptable wariness of strangers or unknown situations and places. But it’s important for parents and teachers to draw a distinction between fleeting developmental shyness and an actual personality type that will likely continue into adulthood, says Jean Otto, a clinical psychologist in Palos Verdes, California. “Shyness and introversion are not the same things,” she says. “A child who is shy is frequently uncomfortable in social situations and feels vulnerable. But often these kids are just slow to warm up and become more engaged as their comfort level increases and are shy mainly in novel situations or around people they don’t know.”

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Introverts, on the other hand, strongly prefer a certain amount of solitude, and recharge their batteries with downtime by themselves, she says.

Keep in mind that labeling your child as “shy” to excuse behavior that you may find embarrassing or bad etiquette, like refusing to greet adults, may do more harm than good. “If you call your child shy, the risk is that they may hear it as being flawed or deficient in some way,” says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.

Sarah Thorne*, a parenting instructor and mom, identified early on that her daughter exhibited signs of being an introvert but she also doesn’t feel that calling a child “shy” is helpful. “I don’t like shyness as a label because it’s often about the situation,” she says. “Many children are perfectly confident with other children they get on well with, or with adults who know how to interact with children well. Sometimes adults just label a kid shy if they don’t respond in the way that they socially expect them to.”

To support shy or naturally introverted children in exploring the world, Walfish advises parents to set up opportunities to practice social skills in a non-threatening way. She suggests parents arrange play dates with just one other child, because groups, especially of three, can lead to less-assertive children being left out. Walfish also advises parents to be selective in who they choose to interact with their child. “Invite an easy-going, gentle child for a play date. And if your child feels more secure with you nearby, sit near him but as far away as he can comfortably tolerate. You want to be supportive without fostering his dependence on you.”

Anxiety is more than shyness
Anxiety, unlike shyness, is a condition often accompanied by physical symptoms and typically causes sufferers discomfort and stress.

The Social Anxiety Institute, the only treatment centre in the world that specializes solely in the treatment of social anxiety, points out that shyness is a personality trait, whereas social anxiety is accompanied by overwhelming negative emotions. “People with social anxiety experience fear, anxiety, stress, embarrassment and humiliation on a daily basis,” says Otto. “The amount of anxiety experienced is enough to inflict great emotional pain and cause people to avoid situations, rather than facing them and experiencing the fear and anxiety.”

So be on the lookout for any physical or emotional symptoms accompanying more common outward signs of shyness in your child. “Look for physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches, especially around times that children might be feeling fearful or apprehensive,” says Otto. “Many kids become sick on Sunday night because they are anxious about going to school in the morning and experience an impending sense of doom or dread.”

Mom-of-two Zaida Khaze always knew one of her daughters was shy, and was worried about the implications for her little girl’s social life. “I was concerned because she wanted friends to play with, but she was sending confusing messages to her peers. She is too shy to even initiate a hello unless they are her closest friend,” she says.

But a recent diagnosis of anxiety has changed how she handles things. Signing her daughter up for sports classes helped to create regular and predictable times when she was expected to interact with others. And accompanying her daughter to birthday parties (as opposed to just dropping her off) helped to provide emotional support, while also encouraging her to socialize more.

If your child’s anxiety seems to be affecting their ability to enjoy life, talk to your doctor. But in the meantime, there are some small steps you can take, says Julia Cook, a counselor and parenting expert in Fremont, Nebraska. Even if your child’s concerns seem unreasonable, try to genuinely accept them, while also gently correcting misinformation, says Cook. Always try to get your child to events on time, or early, since being late can elevate levels of anxiety. Role-play different strategies for dealing with expected anxiety—it’s helpful if you model how to react in certain situations. And whenever you can, allow and encourage your child to do things on his own.

*Name has been changed by request.

Read more:
Why introverted kids are awesome
How to help your kids make friends

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