The beginning of the school year is as exciting as it is nerve-wracking. A new school year—for both parents and kids—means meeting new people, establishing new routines, and finding ways to do it all in the span of a day. There’s an added layer of nuance that bubbles to the surface if you have an introverted child. You may ask yourself questions like: 

“Is this just introversion or social anxiety?” 

“Should I be helping my child make friends?” 

“When do I talk to their teacher or doctor?” 

Mary Borys, LCSW, a therapist with Alma Therapy, helps unpack some of the bigger questions about your child’s introversion. Namely, how to tell when introversion may be a sign of something bigger, and how to best support an introverted child. 

Related: 13 routines and activities to prep kids for back-to-school

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Understanding introversion

Because introversion, social anxiety and shyness can seem so similar, having clear definitions for each is the first step to assessing the best ways to support a child. 

Introversion in children, like in adults, can manifest as wanting to play alone or work independently (and enjoying it that way), according to the American Psychological Association.  

“The biggest difference between introversion and social anxiety comes down to contentment,” explains Borys. “Children can be very well-adjusted and happy with an introverted temperament, versus social anxiety which causes disruption to their wellbeing.” 

Is it introversion or social anxiety?

Some key differences to look out for when gauging if your child is introverted or navigating social anxiety comes down to how they play. 

“An introverted child is OK with a few friends, often prefers play that is more individual, and may feel tired after big group social events or need more frequent rest after school or playdates,” explains Borys. “Alternatively, a child with social anxiety has the desire to participate or form more friendships, but is overwhelmed and feels like they can’t.” 

Age can also play a factor in how your introversion presents itself. For young kids, behaviors like hiding behind a parent or avoiding eye contact can be key signs, according to Borys. For older children, some mannerisms are habitually avoiding participating in school activities or watching others play from the sidelines. The caveat, as mentioned before, is that children find pleasure in being alone instead of yearning to be more involved with others. 

Related: How to parent an introvert

According to Borys, the length of the behavior can also help parents distinguish between introversion, social anxiety or beginning-of-the-school-year nerves. 

Beginning-of-school-year nerves are exactly that—present at the beginning of the school year,” notes Borys. “With time (I typically like to use six weeks as a good marker), as students become more familiar with each other, the nerves should ease up.” 

Should they not ease up, seeking out medical support is a pathway for concerned parents. Some signs that beginning-of-the-school-year nerves are something bigger are sleep disruptions, anxiety or depression, fixating on others’ perceptions of them, huge emotional outbursts before social situations, and persistent psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches, according to Borys. These are all signs that a little extra support, either with your PCP or a therapist, can benefit your child. 

How to help an introverted child make friends

As parents, the best way you can help your child starts by paying attention to who they are and signs that they may be struggling. Introversion isn’t a character flaw. Instead, it’s about noticing your child’s relationship to it. 

“Some red flags that a child might be emotionally impacted by the struggle to make friends would be if you notice a pervasive shift in their mood, if they name and verbalize feeling lonely or if your child is being picked on or bullied by others,” explains Borys. 

Related: How to help your child deal with a bully, according to a child psychologist

According to Borys, if you’re trying to help your child navigate their introversion and make friends, you should: 

  • Avoid putting pressure on your child to make friends quickly
  • Tell them stories about times you’ve struggled with making friends and what you did 
  • Schedule play dates for them in your own home so that the environment feels familiar 

“For younger kids, when having a playdate or socializing, allow them to stay close to you at first or help facilitate playing before stepping back to let them explore and take risks,” explains Borys. 

Align your approach with your child’s teachers

If your child is having a hard time at school, there are ways for you to work with their teacher to help create a best-case scenario for them. 

“Communicate, communicate, communicate. Parents, let your teacher know if a student is introverted, as well as any likes or dislikes that they can use to create a more comfortable environment,” encourages Borys. 

Related: It’s possible to thrive in parenthood as an introvert—here’s how

“Tell each other what is working at home and at school and use consistent language around normalizing introversion and supporting anxiety. Continue to foster self-esteem and confidence through positive affirmations and naming other positive qualities that each individual child embodies.”

If you’re a teacher hoping to help your students navigate introversion and make friends, Borys suggests “having regular conversations in your classroom about social dynamics and interactions.” 

Taking on new experiences can be overwhelming, exciting and have their own learning curves—no matter how old or young you are. Staying attentive and having patience as your introverted child moves through a new school year is the best gift you can give them.