Introversion vs. Social Anxiety in Youth
Of the ideas within psychology that are widely known, introversion/extroversion probably ranks near the top. Many people describe themselves and others as either an introvert or an extrovert. But despite growing awareness of introversion, there is still a lot of confusion about how it's different from other things. Many others have talked about how introversion is different from being shy, but what about how it's different from social anxiety? This distinction can be harder to make, but it can be important for deciding if your child is a good candidate for therapy. Here, I want to help explain the difference between the two.
First, let's focus on introversion. Many of you are likely already familiar with this term, but to summarize briefly: introversion describes those who enjoy time alone to "recharge" due to the fact that social interactions (though enjoyable) can feel "draining." This is in contrast to extroversion, when socializing itself is a source of "energy" and time alone can be tiring.
For a long time people talked about introversion and extroversion as two categories, and everyone fit into one. Now more and more people are starting to appreciate the fact that the distinction is less clear. People tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes (leading a rise in the term "ambivert" for those in the middle). But people can also move along this spectrum, sometimes feeling more extroverted or introverted (or feeling differently in some situations versus others).
A challenge that has lingered for introverts is that those who fall on the more extroverted end of the spectrum often misunderstand introversion. As a result, extroverted parents can sometimes become concerned about their introverted child. These concerns can be valid at times, but not necessarily for the introversion itself.
That's because introversion is not a mental health disorder. It's fairly common, and people with introversion can function well in day-to-day life. That's because socializing isn't a problem, it's just tiring. Introverts may limit their socializing as a result, but not to an extent that is problematic.
In fact, people who feel introverted can often appear extroverted when socializing. Friends may never know that someone is introverted because the person seems to have so much fun when with others. Introversion is not a lack of enjoying socializing. And introverts feel "drained" in different types of situations (e.g., crowds are tiring for me personally but not small group gatherings), so it may not always seem consistent.
So if a child is simply on the more introverted side of the spectrum, I encourage parents to understand and allow a child their space as needed. This is assuming the child otherwise does not mind socializing and can get by in day-to-day life just fine.
(And just for the sake of clarity, when I refer to "the spectrum" here I'm discussing introversion to extroversion, not the autism spectrum, which is sometimes talked about as the spectrum).
The problem is when social anxiety enters the situation. Now, to be clear, I'm not necessarily talking about an official diagnosis of social anxiety, just nervousness in social situations more broadly (which may qualify for a diagnosis if severe enough).
Social anxiety is marked by feelings of nervousness specific to social situations/interactions, including feelings of discomfort and/or panic when in some of these situations. Because of these uncomfortable feelings, people learn to avoid social situations. Unfortunately, the relief that comes with avoiding the situations ends up reinforcing the nervousness about those situations, making the symptoms worse.
For example, a child with social anxiety may try to avoid school on a day that they are supposed to give a presentation in front of their class. If they stay home, they may feel relieved and more relaxed. That feeling of relief reinforces the avoidance, making it more likely they'll do the same thing next time they have a similar assignment (or something else anxiety-provoking).
Ultimately the goal for therapy with these kids is to give them exposure to some of these anxiety-provoking situations so they can practice coping skills and reduce the uncomfortable feelings that they experience. The more exposure they get to these situations that go well and with reduced discomfort, the weaker the anxiety will be.
Comparison to Introversion
As I mentioned above, introversion by itself does not have anxiety associated with it. As a result, these forced exposures will do little to help. Rather than reducing any uncomfortable feelings, forced socializing can actually lead to more drained energy and potential burnout.
That being said, some kids have both introversion and social anxiety. This can be a tricky combination, as social situations are both uncomfortable and draining. But the goal with these kids is to diminish the anxiety. After that, they can choose to not be social as a preference, rather than feeling forced out of worry/nervousness.
Overall, I think the difference between introversion and social anxiety can be summarized this way:
So if you have a child who seems more introverted, look to see if they show any signs of anxiety when socializing. If they do, consider meeting with a therapist to help them feel more comfortable. But keep in mind that the goal of therapy will not necessarily be to "make them more social." Instead, the goal will simply be to help them feel more comfortable in social situations by helping them manage their anxiety. After that, if they need their personal space to "recharge," that's fine! And if a child prefers alone time, without any signs of anxiety when they socialize, then therapy most likely isn't appropriate.
What can help is to have a discussion with your child about their feelings. If they need some space, encourage them to verbalize that, and then allow them to have that space. Having open communication can help you learn what situations are tiring for that child, and you can then be more understanding of that. For example, if a child becomes tired after spending time in crowds, try to avoid planning a trip that involves spending an entire day in crowded areas.
And most importantly, try to avoid making a child feel guilty for being introverted. It's a very normal thing! Just try to understand them better and work with them on it. You may also be able to help them learn ways to get their personal space and "recharge" time while also meeting the needs of their day-to-day life (e.g., when having to speak to people on the phone, when traveling).
Do you consider yourself introverted and want to highlight something you wish people knew better about introversion? Are you a parent of a child who may be introverted and you're having a hard time understanding them? Let us know in the comments!