Introversion, Shyness and Social Anxiety: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Children who are introverts may feel out of place in today’s society, where assertive behavior and constant collaboration are valued above quiet contemplation. Being perceived as shy or reserved can have a harmful impact on a child’s social and emotional development, as such a temperament may be at odds with the demands of their classroom environment. Whether among peers or adults, shy children may be overlooked when in the presence of their more gregarious counterparts. Moreover, children who prefer to work alone or contemplate their thoughts privately are often urged to conform to the group expectations.

Discounting the possible contributions of shy, introverted children can, as the TED lecturer and author Susan Cain notes, translate to great loss on a larger scale. In her TED talk, Cain spotlights the persisting bias in favor of extroverted students, claiming that “our most important institutions — our schools and our workplaces — are designed for them.”

Instead of only emphasizing group work, Cain argues, teachers must equip young learners with the skills needed to thrive in the workplace both as individuals and collaborators. By fostering students’ autonomy and avoiding an overly stimulating environment for introverts, schools can more adequately support students of varying temperaments and abilities.

In a study of over 10,000 adolescents in the United States, researchers with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that roughly half identified as shy. Yet 12% of these teenagers exhibited levels of anxiety that met the criteria for social phobia, which is often comorbid with mood and behavioral disorders. The prevalence of shyness and anxiety in youth, illustrated by the NIMH study, calls into question our tendency to favor extroversion. But what differentiates shyness from social phobia? Is normal behavior being pathologized?

A recent New York Times article by Perri Klass, M.D., explored these questions in greater detail. Klass frames the discussion in terms of her experience as a medical professional and exposure to what she calls “the great and glorious range of the human normal.” Dr. Klass advocates the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help shy or socially anxious children cope with their school and social environments. A child who exhibits shyness or symptoms of social anxiety can benefit from rehearsing social interactions to reduce discomfort and minimize stress.

At the same time, Klass warns, the focus should not be on altering the child’s fundamental temperament. Introverts and extroverts each have a great deal to offer, whether in schools, the workplace, or communities. Recognizing the potential of reserved children and adolescents can provide them with, as Cain puts it, “the courage to speak softly.”

For more information, you can browse our recent posts on social anxiety and check out Dr. Klass’ book: Quirky Kids, a parent’s guide to supporting children who struggle with learning and behavioral difficulties.

To schedule a consultation with Georgetown Psychology Associates to learn more about how CBT may help your child, please contact us online or call (202) 333-6251.