Is It Anxiety, or Is Your Kid a Sensitive Introvert?

Sensitive, introverted kids often go against social norms, so it can be tricky to tell what’s anxiety and what’s not.

Sensitive, introverted kids often go against social norms, so it can be tricky to tell what’s anxiety and what’s not.

I like to “grumblebrag” that my firstborn didn’t sleep until he was three. He has always barely scraped by into 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 those first few years.

When he was 18 months, 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 go right to sleep.

I was shocked and concerned. (I also wondered if we should replace the crib he never slept in 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 Hits Differently for Sensitive, Introverted Children

Alane Freund, a licensed psychotherapist just outside San Francisco, focuses on highly sensitive youth in her practice. Since about 70 percent of highly sensitive people (HSPs) are introverts, she is very familiar with the specific ways introverted, sensitive children struggle with anxiety. “It’s very hard to determine the difference between chronic overwhelm and anxiety,” Freund told me, which complicates things for sensitive introverts, as overwhelm is a cornerstone of the sensitive trait and is often experienced by introverts, especially in social settings

When distinguishing anxiety diagnoses, like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), from usual introverted behaviors, Freund considers the duration and disruption of the anxiety in the child’s life. Everyone experiences anxious feelings, thoughts, and behaviors from time to time. Freund explained, “Mental health professionals think of anxiety as a continuum.,” Freund explained, “When the meltdown happens and you can’t get them out of it, when the simple tweaks don’t work, then I’d say we start to look at anxiety setting in.” 

Freund offered some common signs and misconceptions of anxiety in our amazing, deep-thinking, creative, clever, resourceful, sensitive, introverted kids

5 Everyday Behaviors of Sensitive, Introverted Kids That Are Mistaken for Anxiety 

It can be challenging to differentiate what is — and isn’t — a sign of anxiety in sensitive, introverted children, as they often operate outside of socially expected norms. Especially for sensitive introverts, it’s important to ask, “Is this behavior simply because they are overwhelmed?” 

Freund said many of the worries that parents bring her regarding their sensitive, introverted kids are just because “they’re really noticing and tuned into, and aware of, what’s going on in their environment” — and it’s not anything to worry about. That said, here are five behaviors that are often mistaken for anxiety in sensitive, introverted kids. 

1. Disinterest in making friends     

Freund explained that sensitive, introverted kids are often at odds with their peers when it comes to friendship and connection. Her advice? Openness around your child’s social group. 

“I always say peer relationships are probably not the best place for introverted, sensitive kids,” Freund said. “They’re thinking more than their peers, and the basic-level, extraneous, empty conversation and play… are not interesting to them. [Instead], they’re interested in the deep processes.”

If your child seems uninterested in peers, as mine has, experiment with older and younger interactions. Older introverted and/or sensitive kids can tutor or mentor younger students while, at the same time, seeking out a favorite teacher to mentor them. Younger children can help their teacher with a classroom task during recess or assist younger kids in the school library. I have tried this with my introverted son and have been amazed at how much he comes out of his shell in these interactions.

Freund also said not to fret over peer interactions. “If they’re going to school, they’re getting more than enough peer relationships.” 

2. Not liking certain social events, like birthday parties

If you have a sensitive or introverted child in your life, or if you were one yourself, you probably know that they simply don’t vibe with many child-centered atmospheres, like birthday parties, theme parks, or even children’s museums. The energy buzzing from the noise and crowds in these environments can wear out a sensitive person or introvert in no time. 

Freund says we shouldn’t be alarmed when our kids don’t care for these events and recommends books like Violet Shrink to help our kids (and if we’re honest, ourselves!) see that there is nothing wrong with their preference for calm and quiet.     

3. Difficulty with transitions, like leaving the house for school

School can be a major sticking point for sensitive and introverted kids. The thing is, most classrooms are simply not designed with introverted kids in mind. Freund said that, for these kids, “Going to school every day is hard… it’s too much.” 

So if your child struggles with transitions in general, but especially with activities that are overstimulating, Freund says that is standard behavior. 

4. Low energy after school and on weekends

When we see other children have seemingly limitless energy, we might worry that our sensitive, introverted children need so much downtime. Freund assures us parents that it’s okay — and even necessary — to give our kids the low-key afternoons and weekends they crave. 

By the time the weekend rolls around, or even at the end of each school day, “they’ve used up all their resources,” Freund explained. Experimenting with the right activity-to-rest ratio is beneficial. You might be surprised by their energy (and enthusiasm!) for the weekend family outing when you take extra care to protect your child’s time by not overscheduling them.

5. Occasional worry and stress 

What makes identifying anxiety in sensitive, introverted children especially tricky is that many of their behaviors and preferences are fine by themselves, but problematic when they become increasingly disruptive patterns over time. After all, they are perceptive and deep-thinking, so it makes sense that they see more reasons to worry and stress than their extroverted counterparts. 

Freund acknowledged that any of the aforementioned behaviors could become worrisome if they grow more consistent and encompassing 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 I think that there’s anxiety going on,” Freund said. 

Now, that said, let’s examine signs of anxiety in sensitive, introverted children.

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5 Signs of Anxiety in Sensitive, Introverted Kids 

1. Growing rigidity

If a child becomes more and more rigid in their preferences, all in an attempt to further control their environment, anxiety is a consideration. 

Freund pointed out some common ways this manifests in sensitive, introverted kids: “When they start to create specific rules in their lives, one might be selective mutism [the inability to speak in certain social settings], one might be very controlled attitudes around eating… we see this a lot in sensitive children. Another one is school refusal.”

2. Physical symptoms 

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

3. Making life smaller and smaller

When sensitive or introverted children struggle with anxiety, they follow a common pattern of increasing the list of things they can’t tolerate. “They might refuse to engage in certain environments, or activities that they did before,” Freund said. In essence, their rigidity grows as their world gets smaller.

Social anxiety is often a component of anxiety for introverts, as well. An important distinction between pure introversion and social anxiety is that introversion does not mean the child fears social situations, but rather, their preference is for curated socializing with plenty of alone time sprinkled in. Social anxiety, on the other hand, taints social interactions with problematic fear, worry, and stress. According to the advocacy group Mental Health America, introversion prefers limited socializing for self-care; social anxiety demands it for self-protection. 

4. Problematic reliance on screens

Screens are a constant source of concern for parents, but Freund said there are signals that a child is self-medicating anxiety through screen use, which, if left unchecked, can make matters worse. 

“Never wanting to give up the screen” might indicate attempting to use screens as a means of unhealthy escapism, Freund explained. This can be tricky to navigate, so going back to the rule of evaluating the duration and disruption of the anxious behavior is helpful.

5. Anxious feelings that keep them from what they enjoy 

When feelings of anxiety become so consistently overwhelming that our sensitive, introverted kids can no longer do what they enjoy, it’s time to seek help. In younger children, Freund said this often looks like “less of an ability to self-regulate, so they are unable to come down after the meltdown [or] overstimulation.” In older children, worrisome withdrawal and “turning within,” to the extent that it keeps them from living their lives, can be a signal that their anxiety has become too much, Freund said. 

So what’s a parent of a sensitive or introverted child to do? Keep reading…

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3 Next Steps for Anxious, Sensitive, Introverted Kids

1. Balance accommodations with challenges.

Supporting our sensitive, introverted kids means accommodating their preferences and way of being, especially when our culture doesn’t. 

Still, parents must find that delicate balance between accommodation and appropriate challenges so kids can learn to productively navigate the world. As Freund advised, “We nurture what their needs are, [and] we say, ‘This is a hard thing that we’re going to do.’” 

Freund stressed that no one benefits from only accommodation. Instead, fostering a growth mindset, gently and gradually, can help anxious kids develop resources to help them work with, and manage, their anxiety. Freund said it takes a skilled parent to navigate 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.”

According to Freund, it’s most important to start with empathy. She said, “You really hear what the fears are and what the concerns are. And you say, ‘Yes. Many people in the world have had these same fears and these same concerns, and that makes it challenging. And challenges make us better.’” 

2. Model dealing with (and treating) your own worry and anxiety.

For introverted parents, so much of our processing happens internally that it may be hard to even think about bringing up our own challenges with our kids! But it’s a habit worth developing. Modeling how we deal with our worry and anxiety can help our kids build resilience just by observing us. 

Personally, I know I am getting better about taking advantage of these opportunities, like when I get anxious about doing something new for work. I know my sensitive son absorbs my stress (whether I speak to it or not). So I’ll casually bring it up with him, saying something like, “I’ve had a stressful day. I’m trying to learn to do something new and it’s overwhelming. I’m worried I’ll mess it up. So I’m breaking it down into really small steps and reminding myself that everyone has a hard time when they’re learning something new.” He seems to really connect with me when I share my challenges with him — and it actually helps me self-regulate my own anxiety in the process!  

Freund explained, “We should be doing things that are hard for us. Maybe we don’t love to exercise, and we can talk about that… Curate what you narrate. You definitely want to narrate your experience of being challenged.” 

3. Seek support. 

We all know it, but it bears repeating: If you are worried about your child, it’s worth seeking a professional opinion from a therapist or mental health professional. 

Freund stressed that “there’s nothing wrong with an anxiety diagnosis. One should be aware when anxiety is happening, whether adult or child. It’s really important, because anxiety is treatable.” 

Many of us worry about seeking diagnoses because we are unsure about medications for our children, but Freund said that many effective treatments for anxiety are simply behavioral interventions. 

“Trust your intuition,” said Freund. “If you’re finding your child’s behaviors are outside the scope of what you would consider average… sometimes these things become so interwoven that it doesn’t matter what it is… We want to really help the child learn to navigate it.”

While I am happy to report that, at eight, my son now sleeps through the night, he can still lose sleep over worry. Anxiety will likely be part of his experience in this world. But by keeping track of its duration and disruption in his life, I’m learning how I can help him, how he can help himself — and when to seek extra help along the way.

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