Introverted, Anxious or Withdrawn? When to Worry About Your Child

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The best advice for parents of an introverted child is to breathe a sigh of relief, and ignore comments from others who suggest that their child should be pushed to “come out of their shell.”

In my 15 years as a psychologist with Indiana University Health Physicians, many parents have come to me with worries about their young children. One commonly asked about issue: quiet children. The good news is that many kids who are on the quiet side, and seem to relish having some time alone to read, draw, or even engage in imaginary play on their own, are totally fine. Kids who are introverted but enjoy spending time with friends and family or those that may find loud, crowded gatherings to be somewhat draining are also not something to be concerned about.

Contrary to popular belief, introverted kids aren’t more anxious or sad than other kids, and they do have friends. The best advice for parents of an introverted child is to breathe a sigh of relief, and ignore comments from others who suggest that their child should be pushed to “come out of their shell.” All personality styles have strengths, and well-meaning parents can do more harm than good if they send the message to their introverted child that something is wrong with them.   Pressuring introverted kids to constantly act like extroverts, who, unlike introverted kids, are energized by loud, crowded gatherings, can leave them feeling drained and stressed. In addition, kids who regularly receive the message from their parents that they are not as good as their extroverted peers may develop negative thoughts about themselves which can raise the risk of depression.

Some quiet kids though, avoid or dread social situations due to anxiety. Young kids who are socially anxious may cling to a parent and possibly cry when faced with a new, or even somewhat familiar social situation. Older kids and teenagers who are socially anxious may avoid doing even simple things, such as ordering for themselves in a restaurant, out of fear that they will “do it wrong” and embarrass themselves.  

Kids who are socially anxious can benefit from some gentle encouragement to take small steps toward doing some of the things they find frightening. For example, a child who is fearful of speaking in class, because they fear the other kids will laugh at them, could be encouraged to start facing this fear by participating in a small group discussion.

Other kids may display a sudden, or gradual loss of interest in interacting with others that goes beyond the common, although maddening, teenage decrease in communication with parents. This is referred to as social withdrawal.  Social withdrawal is concerning and shouldn’t be ignored. Social withdrawal can happen at any age, and there are many causes. 

If a parent notices their child is becoming socially withdrawn, the first step would be to try to talk with their child about what might be going on. Are they being bullied at school? Are they feeling down or overwhelmed? If social withdrawal is accompanied by other worrisome signs such as depressed or irritable mood, loss of interest in activities, excessive sleeping or a drop in school performance, this could be a sign of depression.

If social anxiety doesn’t respond to gentle encouragement, or if a parent is worried that their socially withdrawn child is depressed, seeking professional help makes sense. Both social anxiety and depression can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication.  Cognitive behavioral therapy involves helping kids learn to manage anxiety and mood by changing the way they do things, and changing the way they think about themselves, others and the world. The child’s primary care physician can likely provide direction and a referral if needed.  The good news: With treatment, parents can expect to have their child return to their happy and healthy self soon.

-- By Ann M. Lagges, Ph.D., H.S.P.P.
   Co-Chief Riley Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Mood Disorders Clinic

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