What Anxiety Looks Like in Sensitive, Introverted Kids

an anxious kid

If your child’s meltdowns keep happening and simple tweaks don’t work, it could be a sign of anxiety.

I like to “grumblebrag” that my firstborn didn’t sleep through the night until he was three. He has always just barely scraped by with the medically prescribed “normal” hours of sleep for his age. I surrendered early on to the fact that uninterrupted sleep just wasn’t in the cards for us during those first few years.

When he was 18 months old, I introduced him to his first childcare setting. It was just an hour a week so I could attend a class. Despite spending a few months gently introducing him to the caretakers and gradually leaving him for increasing periods of time, he wasn’t warming up. He even began crying in the car when I would turn into the parking lot. Still, I forged ahead, desperate to acclimate him to this socially expected milestone.

He soon developed his own coping strategy: When we arrived at the childcare room, he would walk straight to the train table, climb on top, and fall asleep.

I was both shocked and concerned. (I also wondered if we should replace the crib, in which he never slept at home, with a train table.)

No one else was worried, not even his pediatrician, but I couldn’t let it go. This was one example of many seemingly anxious behaviors that worried me about my introverted, highly sensitive child.

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Anxiety in Sensitive, Introverted Kids

Pinpointing whether a behavior is due to anxiety, sensitivity, or introversion can be tricky. Alane Freund, a licensed psychotherapist based just outside San Francisco, focuses on highly sensitive youth in her practice. Since about 70 percent of highly sensitive people are introverts, she is very familiar with the specific ways introverted, sensitive children struggle with anxiety.

“It can be hard to determine the difference between chronic overwhelm and anxiety,” Freund explained to me. Being overwhelmed is often a part of being highly sensitive and is also something that introverts, especially in social settings, commonly experience.

When distinguishing anxiety diagnoses, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, from typical introverted behaviors, Freund considers the duration and disruption of the anxiety in the child’s life. Everyone experiences anxious feelings, thoughts, and behaviors occasionally.

As Freund explained, “Mental health professionals think of anxiety as a continuum. When the meltdowns happen and you can’t get your child out of it… when the simple tweaks don’t work… then it might be anxiety.” 

5 Behaviors Often Mistaken for Anxiety

Sensitive, introverted children often operate outside of socially expected norms, which can lead to their behavior being mistaken for anxiety when it isn’t. In the case of sensitive introverts, it’s important to consider, “Is this behavior simply a result of them feeling overwhelmed?”

Freund noted that many concerns parents have about their sensitive, introverted children are simply because “they’re really noticing and tuned into what’s going on in their environment” — and it’s not anything to worry about. With that in mind, here are five behaviors that are commonly mistaken for anxiety in sensitive, introverted children.

1. Disinterest in making friends     

Sensitive, introverted kids often find themselves at odds with their peers in terms of friendship and connection. “Peer relationships are usually not the best place for introverted, sensitive kids,” Freund said. “They’re thinking more than their peers, and basic-level conversation and play is not interesting to them. Instead, they’re interested in the deep processes.”

If your child seems uninterested in peers, as mine has, consider experimenting with interactions involving older or younger kids. Older kids can develop mentorship-type relationships with younger ones, while younger kids might help their teacher with a classroom task during recess or assist even younger kids in the school library. I’ve tried this approach with my introverted son and have been amazed at how much he opens up in these interactions.

Freund also advised not to worry too much about peer interactions: “If they’re going to school, they’re getting more than enough peer interaction.” 

2. Not liking certain social events

If you have a sensitive, introverted child in your life, or if you were one yourself, you probably know that they don’t always vibe with certain atmospheres, like birthday parties, theme parks, or even children’s museums. The energy, buzzing from the noise and crowds in these environments, can quickly wear out a sensitive person or introvert.

Freund says we shouldn’t be alarmed when our kids don’t enjoy these events and recommends books like Violet Shrink to help our young kids (and let’s be honest, ourselves too!) understand that there’s nothing wrong with calm and quiet.

3. Difficulty with transitions

School can be a major struggle for sensitive, introverted kids. The reality is, most classrooms aren’t designed with introverted children in mind. Freund said that, for these kids, “Going to school every day can be hard. It’s just too much.” So, if your child struggles with transitions in general, but particularly with activities that are overstimulating, this behavior is typical.

4. Low energy after school and on weekends

When we see other children with seemingly endless energy, we might worry about our sensitive, introverted kids needing a lot of downtime. Freund said it’s okay — and necessary — to give our kids the low-key afternoons and weekends they need.

By the time the weekend arrives, or even at the end of each school day, “they’ve used up all their resources,” Freund says. Finding the right balance between activity and rest is important. You might be surprised by their enthusiasm for a weekend family outing when you take extra care to protect your child’s energy by not overscheduling them.

5. Occasional worry and stress 

Identifying anxiety in sensitive, introverted children can be particularly challenging because many of their behaviors are normal in isolation but become concerning when they develop into increasingly disruptive patterns over time. Given their perceptive and deep-thinking nature, it’s understandable that they might see more reasons to worry compared to their extroverted peers.

Freund acknowledged that any of the previously mentioned behaviors could become worrisome if they become more consistent and pervasive in the child’s life. “If we’ve done everything right, we’ve created the right environment, and they still are having that meltdown [or other worrisome behavior], then there might be anxiety going on,” Freund noted. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the signs of anxiety in sensitive, introverted children.

5 Signs of Anxiety in Sensitive, Introverted Kids 

1. Growing rigidity

If your child is becoming increasingly rigid about what they like and don’t like, it might be a sign of anxiety. For example, your child might have a major meltdown over minor changes in their daily routine. They might become upset if something is missing from their lunch, refuse to go to school because their favorite shirt is dirty, or demand that you always drive the same route home. Having control can make them feel less anxious because it makes the world seem more predictable.

Usually, children start to become less rigid as they grow out of the toddler years. However, if your child’s need for control continues into the upper elementary years and begins to interfere with daily life, this could be a sign of anxiety.

2. Physical symptoms 

Persistent physical symptoms that may indicate an anxiety disorder include headaches, fatigue, nausea and gastrointestinal distress, restlessness, trouble sleeping, and tight muscles. Freund said that anxiety can also manifest in physical behaviors like skin-picking and hair-pulling. Additionally, any form of physical self-harm should be discussed with a healthcare provider.

3. Making life smaller and smaller

When kids face anxiety, the list of things they can’t tolerate grows longer. “They might refuse to engage in certain environments or activities that they did before,” Freund said. Essentially, their rigidity grows as their world gets smaller.

It’s common for introverted kids to experience social anxiety, although introversion and anxiety are not the same thing. Introverted kids don’t fear being around others; they just like having fewer and chosen social times with breaks to be alone. Social anxiety, on the other hand, involves being afraid, worried, and stressed in social situations. According to Mental Health America, introverts choose to avoid socializing as a way to take care of themselves, while those with social anxiety avoid socializing as a way to protect themselves.

4. Problematic reliance on screens

Screens often worry parents, and Freund noted that there are signs a child might be using screens to cope with anxiety, which could make things worse if ignored.

If a child never wants to give up the screen, it might mean they’re using screens to escape problems in an unhealthy way. This situation can be tough to handle, so it helps to look at how long and how much this behavior is affecting them.

5. Anxious feelings that keep them from what they enjoy 

When anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it stops your child from doing things they enjoy, it’s time to get help. Freund explained that in younger children, this usually shows up as having a harder time calming themselves down; they might struggle to settle after having a meltdown or getting too excited. For older kids, withdrawal and “turning inward” so much that it interferes with their daily life can signal that their anxiety is too intense.

So, what should a parent of a child with anxiety do? Keep reading.

Anxiety Coping Skills for Kids

1. Facing challenges is how we grow stronger.

Supporting our sensitive, introverted kids means respecting their needs, even when they differ from the norms of our extroverted world.

Yet, always making things easy for your child won’t teach them how to cope with their anxiety. Encourage your child to gradually face their fears. Freund points out the need for skillful parenting in this balance: “We parents are a safety net for children. When they do the hard things, we hear them, we align with them, we understand that it’s hard. We talk about how hard it is.”

Start with empathy. Freund advises parents to really listen to their children’s fears and worries, but also to teach them that dealing with challenges is how we grow stronger.

2. Share how you cope with your own anxiety.

If you’re an introvert, much of your processing happens internally, which might make it hard to discuss your own challenges with your kids. But it’s a habit worth developing. By modeling how you handle your worries, you can help your kid build resilience simply through observation.

Personally, I’m getting better at seizing these opportunities, like when I’m anxious about trying something new at work. I know my sensitive son picks up on my stress, whether I talk about it or not. So, I casually mention it, saying something like, “I’ve had a stressful day because I’m learning something new, and it’s overwhelming. I worry about messing it up, so I break it down into small steps and remind myself that everyone struggles when learning something new.” He seems to connect with me when I share my challenges with him — and it helps me cope with my own anxiety too!

Freund talked about the importance of narrating your difficult experiences: “Maybe we don’t love to exercise, and we can talk about that. Of course, curate what you narrate, but you want to narrate your experience of being challenged.” 

Is social anxiety holding your child back?

Although social anxiety is not the same thing as introversion, many introverted kids experience this painful and isolating condition. The truth is your child can learn the skills to overcome their social anxiety, and our partner Natasha Daniels can show them how. This means happier school days, less resistance to social activities, more friends, and lifelong confidence. Click here to check out her online class, How to Crush Social Anxiety. For ages 10+.

3. Don’t be afraid of an anxiety diagnosis. 

We all know this, but it’s worth repeating: If you’re worried about your child, seeking a professional opinion from a therapist or mental health professional is a good idea.

Freund stressed that there’s nothing wrong with an anxiety diagnosis. It’s important to be aware of anxiety, whether in an adult or a child, because anxiety is treatable.

Many of us hesitate to seek diagnoses, worried about the possibility of medicating our children, but many effective treatments for anxiety are behavioral interventions.

“Trust your intuition,” said Freund. “It doesn’t matter exactly what the issue is. What really matters is we help our children learn to navigate it.”

While I’m happy to report that my son, now eight, sleeps through the night, he can still lose sleep due to worry. Anxiety will likely be a part of his experience in this world. By monitoring its duration and impact on his life, I’m learning how to help him, how he can help himself, and when it’s time to seek help along the way.

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