Does my child have social anxiety or are they just shy?

I really like this question because I think it can be confusing. If you listened to the previous episode e about why encouragement doesn’t always work for anxious kids (that was episode # 48), we talked a lot about temperament, particularly about the slow to warm temperament. And temperament is what we’re also talking about here.

Some kids are more shy than others, meaning that they take more time to warm up in social situations. Some kids are more introverted, too, which means that they don’t need as much social stimulation as other kids. They may find social situations more of a drag on their energy and so these children and teens may have fewer friends.

And that’s fine.

It’s fine to like being alone, it’s fine to hang back in social situations until we are comfortable, and it’s fine to enjoy one or two close friends rather than to want to hang out with a crowd.

It’s all fine.

Shy children, introverted children are living out a preference. They prefer smaller situations. They prefer to come to things on their own time.

They may like a big party but want to hang at the edges. Or they may have no interest in a big party but would prefer a celebration with just one good friend.

Now socially anxious kids are NOT living out a preference. They want to be social — or at least more social than they are being — and are unable to because of their anxiety.

Socially anxious children and teens may also be shy or may also be introverted and this can make it more difficult to tease things out.

Let’s compare the two:

A shy child will eventually warm up in social situations. A socially anxious child will continue to feel distressed and in fact their distress might increase.

A shy child may prefer one or two close friends over a crowd. A socially anxious child may struggle with friendships, worrying that the friends they have like them or worrying that their friends are secretly upset with them even when they’re not.

A shy child may be reluctant to attend a large social gathering but they won’t necessarily be avoidant. They may roll their eyes or grouch, but they’ll still be willing to go to the birthday party. The socially anxious child may panic and refuse to go or struggle to sleep the night before or repeatedly ask you if they can stay home.

A shy child’s functioning is fairly consistent — you know which situations they prefer and which they don’t. A socially anxious child’s functioning likely gets worse over time if there is no intervention. They may be unpredictable, willing to attend a social event one day and then the next bottoming out and unable to get out of the car and head in to the party.

The shy child would prefer to stay home. The socially anxious child struggles to leave the house. So there’s preference and then there’s ability.

The shy child can push past their limits when motivated. The socially anxious child is trapped by their limits. It’s the difference between someone saying, “Ok, fine, I’ll do it” and someone melting down or beating themselves up because they can’t do it. 

Shy child don’t have the performance worries of the socially anxious. 

Let’s look at some examples and hopefully you’ll be able to recognize your child in one of these if you are wondering about their functioning.

The first child is socially anxious and outgoing. They want to be part of the crowd. They are sorry to miss out on the school dance or soccer team try outs. They are unhappy not being a part of things but they are excessively worried about failing or about being made fun of or of not getting things right.

The second child is socially anxious and more introverted. They may express that they are lonely. They may say that they worry that something is quote “wrong with me” end quote because they don’t know how to fit in. You may look back and see that they tended to smaller groups or just one friend at a time but now you are seeing them become more isolated.

Now the child who is introverted but does not have social anxiety does not express unhappiness with their social life. I mean, they might complain now and then — we all sometimes feel left out — but generally speaking they have a solid friend or two, they are able to participate in things, they may not be joiners but if they want to do a thing with someone like go to the movies or have someone over — they’re able to do this.

If you’re not sure, just think about how your child communicates about social events. Are they like, “ugh, fine, I’ll go but I won’t like it” or are they excessively worried, asking for reassurance, telling you how everyone is dumb or mean or will judge them. Is there an emotional component that you’re seeing, a digging in of their heels. Are things getting worse, is their social life getting smaller. Are they fretting about friend drama to the point that the drama is bigger than their friendships.

You can also look at their functioning across their lifetime. Introverted babies may make less eye contact or be less interested in engaging with strangers. You know how babies often go through a period of flirting and being adorable with cashiers, shy babies aren’t interested in this. One of my children was shy but not socially anxious and as a preschooler when people would try to engage with him he would just point at me. He didn’t have trouble doing this — he didn’t cry or hide his face — he’d just point at me to answer. My other child was extremely outgoing but struggled with some social anxiety and this appeared later in life. The fact that it was different than her functioning at other ages pointed to it being an anxiety issue and not a preference.

We see social anxiety crop up in kids when social demands increase. I see it around 8 or 9 especially for girls and I see it a whole lot in middle school. No wonder, right, because these are socially anxious times. Just because it’s developmentally typical doesn’t mean we should ignore it or assume they’ll outgrow it. Untreated anxiety tends to get worse and Kids who are prone to anxiety in one area are more likely to have anxiety in other areas, too. There are no downsides to learning anxiety coping tools.

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