Wouldn’t it be nice to directly establish social expectations right from the start of a relationship? “Hi my name is Kelly, and I’m an introvert.” This would be my introduction of choice, except that it seems as though I’m admitting to some sort of malfunction. Plus it’s slightly awkward.
I also have an introverted child, and I’m trying to raise her to know that being reserved is not any kind of malfunction. She should be confident in who she is and not think she has to change in order to fit in to this chatty, busy, extroverted world. The best thing I can do for her is to show her that I understand; I know where she’s coming from, and I know what she needs.
If you also have an introverted child, here are some things to understand in meeting their needs:
1. Introverted kids energize by being alone. Some people unwind and recharge by connecting with a group of friends or going out. Not so with introverts. When they have had a busy, stimulating, or stressful day, they need alone time. Not down time, as in a low-key get together at home with family or friends, but alone time. Singular and solitary. And it’s not a like, as in, “I’d like to be alone now,” it’s a NEED. Introverted kids need time to process the activities, interactions, conversations, information, and their emotions from the day. This is a giant stress release, and not getting it is treacherous for an introvert’s psyche.
DO: Work in some time every day in which your introverted child is not engaging with anyone else. This may be alone in their bedroom or playroom, or it may be in the same room as you while you take a nap or read a book. Alone time can be together if there is no engagement with the child.
DON’T: Insist that your child should talk to you as soon as you notice a problem or stressful situation. He won’t be able to clarify his thoughts until he spends time alone with them. “How was your day at school?” is much more effectively asked after a child has a quiet car ride home or spends an hour climbing trees.
2. Introverted kids don’t like small talk (especially with strangers). This does not mean they’re shy. It means: 1) they like to skip meaningless chit chat and just stick to the important stuff, and 2) they like to develop a relationship with someone before they talk about important things. Introverts need to develop a connection with someone before they’ll talk comfortably. There must be a trust that that person will listen, a trust that she’ll understand, a trust that the child will be taken seriously. This leads to being cautious in getting to know new people which looks like “shyness.”
DO: If you’re introducing your introverted child to a person with whom a relationship is important to develop, aim for creating a connection first. Be the bridge between the friend and the child; when he feels safe, he will come over.
DON’T: Announce introverted children as shy, and don’t make them “perform” small talk. It really does feel like a performance and create stress.
3. Introverted kids process their feelings internally. You may not be aware of what a child is feeling because she doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve.
Just to compare: an extroverted child takes in stimuli and turns it right back out at the world. A disagreement with a friend? Loud angry words right back atcha. An exciting ride at the fair? Boisterous chatter, laughter, shouting. Enjoying a great movie? Vibrant narrations and commentary throughout.
By contrast, introverts take in stimuli and retain it; they toss it about for a while to decide what they think and how to respond. Sometimes sensory input may be too much for an introverted child’s internal processor and may have nowhere to go but out. Overstimulation appears in the form of an outburst that may seem random or misplaced. But it’s really too much emotional turmoil that has built up and for which there is no more room inside.
DO: Understand that your introverted child’s feelings may not be obvious. To help with communication, give kids outlets for expression like journaling, art, or lots of time for free play with toys and characters. (At our house, we also like pounding nails into a stump!)
DON’T: Assume that because an introverted child is not having an outburst that she’s “fine.” A tantrum is simply the final straw for an introvert; it’s what happens where there is no more room for stress inside. When they occur, accept them wholly and be available to listen reflectively.
4. Introverted kids prefer play dates to play groups. One-on-one encounters allow people to get to know each other much more deeply, which is the kind of interaction introverts crave. I would venture to say that the deeper levels of relationship only occur in one-on-one encounters, introvert or not; that it is impossible to truly get to know a person when you’re always in the presence of others. But for introverts, single-friend play dates are less stimulating than being in a large group of activity and are more conducive to meaningful conversation. This is an introvert’s need that balances out their other need for alone time.
DO: Opt for play dates with a single friend or family over large groups of kids and parents. Keep birthday parties small and intimate. Help your introvert develop a few close friendships rather than a variety of acquaintances.
DONT: Assume that being a social butterfly is akin to happiness for your introvert. The more people they encounter, the harder it is for them to process the interactions and enjoy the time with everyone.
5. Introverted kids enjoy activities that allow their minds to wander. Any opportunity to think, pretend, get creative, solve problems, day dream or otherwise get inside their head is welcome. Great introverted activities include reading, writing, sketching, jump rope, roller skating, fishing, painting, bike rides, gardening, playing catch, swimming, hiking, swinging, climbing trees, puzzles…the list goes on.
DO: Support and encourage your child’s natural interests. Be open about what those might be.
DON’T: Insist on participating in group activities for the purpose of social skills or teamwork. While it’s true that team sports do have a lot of value, not participating is not automatically a detriment. There are so many ways for a child to assert her talent, learn new skills, and develop her strengths.
Here are some resources I have enjoyed that are very helpful in understanding introversion:
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. And here is a post Susan wrote on
Ten Tips for Parenting an Introverted Child as well as her awesome (and daring–for an introvert) TED talk based on her book.
The Highly Sensitive Child, by Elaine Aron (Being highly sensitive is not the same as being introverted, but they are usually closely related. Chances are your introvert is also highly sensitive.)
Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, by Marti Olsen Laney
You may also be interested in my follow-up post on parenting extroverted kids