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Some people are fascinated (others are perplexed) when they first hear that some individuals with social anxiety are extroverts. It seems like an oxymoron, right?
When I first realized that this combination of internal forces were the reason for my son’s struggles, it blew my mind, too. But then again, he also has other traits, like asynchronous development, seem contradictory until you begin to dissect them!
A real internal struggle
What does it feel like to be an extrovert with social anxiety? Here’s how some people describe it:
“I was bullied from a very young age. Whether it was me trying to make friends and being rejected for unknown reasons, getting picked on for having a ‘weird’ sense of humor…”
What It’s Like to be an Extrovert with Social Anxiety by Casey Wilk
“…it can be hard to know what to do because nothing feels right. Hiding from the world may sound safe, but it goes against your nature. Because extroverts need others to energize, hiding from the world can lead to depression.”
Extroverts Can Experience Social Anxiety, Too by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
“whilst I’m often trying to be the life…of the party, I’m always convinced I’m boring or annoying everyone. This often leads to me being louder or more annoying…”
The Hidden Torment of an Anxious Extrovert by Kashmira Gander
Ways to help
So, what should you do when a child craves social interaction, but it’s an ongoing stressor for him?
First and foremost, know that every child is different and I’m not a pediatric clinician. However, based on my first-hand experience, as well as the insights I’ve gathered from many professionals who are experts on anxiety disorders, depression, bright and quirky children, and kids who have “social smarts” deficits, here’s an excellent place to start:
- Get a full psychological evaluation – Don’t just evaluate for mental health. There may be other factors at play. This was very much the case with my son. To my surprise, his intellectual capabilities were markedly above average. (No, I had no idea! This is important, though, because it means he’s twice exceptional, or outside the norm in two ways.) Therefore, expecting solutions, like the Friendship Groups counselors design for neurotypical kids, often don’t help.
- Help the child learn how to manage his anxiety – When a child has an anxiety disorder of any kind, he must know what calmness feels like before he can begin the process of achieving that state, especially on his own. This can take time; often a lot of time because, as Stuart Shanker, PhD, explains in Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, each kid is different. What helps one child to feel calm may do nothing to help another. In fact, it may even agitate him.
If you think depression has set in, too, or the anxiety itself has become debilitating, strongly consider getting professional help. A therapist can really help if you find one who is a good match. For example, if a child is “gifted” or twice exceptional, it’s important that the therapist understand common traits, such as asynchronous development and the five types of intensities – and how those can influence anxiety, depression, social interactions and more. Someone who doesn’t understand how all of this fits together is much more likely to misinterpret, or even misdiagnose, the child.
- Build the child’s social competencies – Did you notice that I mention this after identifying and addressing the child’s anxiety? That’s because anxiety disorders are straight-up debilitating. As my son recently told me, sometimes on the school bus, he “was a mess.” When a child is in fight, flight or freeze mode, any social skills that you teach him will become inaccessible. He’ll be in a state of panic, and the part of his brain that handles higher-level thinking (the prefrontal cortex) shuts off. Dr. Shanker gives several examples of this in Self-Reg.
I’ve also heard social competencies guru Michelle Garcia Winner emphasize that if anxiety or depression are present, it should be addressed before working on a child’s social smarts; otherwise, you’ll make little to no progress. (She’s the highly-respected speech-language pathologist who created the Social Thinking® methodology and curriculum.)
- If someone is bullying the child, talk with whomever is appropriate (teacher, parent, team coach, camp director, etc.)
- Help the child find his tribe – Think about the child’s strengths and interests. What does he really enjoy? What are his natural talents? When the child is around like-minded kids, he’ll sense it pretty quickly. And they will, too! 🙂 That alone may take the edge off in some social situations. Plus, as I’ve learned through Bright and Quirky, and other resources, when you give twice-exceptional kids an opportunity to focus on an intellectual intensity, some of their deficit areas can actually diminish! How awesome is that?!? Like all cognitively “gifted” children, these kiddos become laser focused when there’s a project or goal that interests them.
As I think about this, that certainly means they’re accessing the higher-level thinking part of their brains. And that means they’re more likely to be able to retrieve other info stored in that region, like social competencies.
Success (and healing) take time
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you, too, have been dealing with this challenge for what feels like an eternity. Unfortunately, relief probably won’t come as quickly as you’d like. It’s a process to dig out of this hole. Don’t give up, though!
Also, look for small wins along the way. Even improvements that seem minor can be indicators of major shifts happening on the inside. 🙂
I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that this approach is a huge part of the solution to positioning your child (or student or patient) for social success. And enabling him to feel more whole.
All my best,