You’re confused by your kid. She doesn’t act the way you did growing up. She’s hesitant and reserved. Instead of diving in to play, she’d rather stand back and watch the other kids. She talks to you in fits and starts—sometimes she rambles on, telling you stories, but other times, she’s silent, and you can’t figure out what’s going on in her head. She spends a lot of time alone in her bedroom. Her teachers say they wish she’d participate more in class. Her social life is limited to two people.
Even weirder, she seems totally okay with that.
Congratulations: You’ve got an introvert.
It’s not unusual for extroverted parents to worry about their introverted children—and even wonder if their behavior is healthy. (Disclaimer: Children can suffer from anxiety and depression, just as adults can. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of childhood depression; sometimes withdrawal from others and low energy signal something quite different than introversion.)
However, many introverted children are not depressed or anxious at all. They behave in the way they do because of their innate temperament—being an introvert is genetic, and it's not going to change. The more you embrace your child's natural introverted personality, the happier they will be.
Here are 15 things you must understand if you're the parent of an introvert.
What You Should Know About Your Introverted Kid
1. There's nothing unusual or shameful about being an introvert.
Introverts are hardly a minority, making up 30-50 percent of the U.S. population. Some of our most successful leaders, entertainers, and entrepreneurs have been introverts, such as Bill Gates, Emma Watson, Warren Buffett, Courteney Cox, Christina Aguilera, and J.K. Rowling. It's often suggested that even Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi were introverts.
2. Your child won't stop being an introvert.
Can your child just “get over” hating raucous birthday parties? Nope. According to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, introversion and extroversion are genetic (although parents play an important role in nurturing that temperament). Introverts' and extroverts' brains are also wired somewhat differently.
According to Laney, introverts’ and extroverts’ brains may use different neurotransmitter pathways, and they may favor different “sides” of their nervous system (introverts prefer the parasympathetic side, the “rest and digest” system, as opposed to the sympathetic, which triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response). Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that introverts have larger, thicker gray matter in their prefrontal cortices, which is the area of the brain associated with abstract thought and decision-making.
So if your child tends to be more cautious and reserved than his extroverted peers, rest assured that there’s a biological reason for it.
3. They'll warm up to new people and situations slowly—and that's okay.
Introverts often feel overwhelmed or anxious in new environments and around new people. If you’re attending a social event, don’t expect your child to jump into the action and chat with other children right away. If possible, arrive early, so your child can get comfortable in that space and feel like other people are entering a space he already “owns.”
Another option is to have your child stand back from the action at a comfortable distance—perhaps near you, where he feels safe—and simply watch for a few minutes. Quiet observation will help him process things.
If neither of those options is possible, discuss the event ahead of time with him, talking about who will be there, what will likely happen, how he might feel, and what he can do when he's losing energy.
No matter what new experience you’re getting him accustomed to, remember: Go slowly, but don’t not go. “Don’t let him opt out, but do respect his limits, even when they seem extreme,” writes Susan Cain about introverted children. “Inch together toward the thing he’s wary of."
4. Socializing zaps your introverted kid's energy.
Both introverts and extroverts can feel drained by socializing, but for introverts, it's even worse. If your child is older, teach her to excuse herself to a quieter part of the room or a different location, such as the bathroom or outside. If she’s younger, she might not notice when she’s tapped out, so you’ll have to watch her for signs of fatigue—the dreaded "introvert hangover."
5. Making friends can be nerve-wracking for introverts.
Which means, give your child positive reinforcement when he takes a social risk. Say something like, “Yesterday, I saw you talking to that new boy. I know that was hard for you, and I’m proud of what you did.”
6. But you can teach them to self-regulate their negative feelings.
Say, “You thought you were going to have a miserable time at the birthday party, but you ended up making some new friends.” With positive reinforcement like this, over time, he’ll be more likely to self-regulate the negative feelings he associates with stepping out of his comfort zone.
7. Your kid may have intense—and unique—interests.
Give him opportunities to pursue those interests, says Christine Fonseca, author of Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World. Softball and Boy Scouts may work well for some children, but don’t forget to look off the beaten path and consider writing classes or science camps. Intense engagement in an activity can bring happiness, well-being, and confidence (think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow), but it also gives your kid opportunities to socialize with other children who have similar passions (and perhaps similar temperaments).
8. Talk to their teachers about introversion.
Some teachers mistakenly assume that introverted children don’t speak up much in class, because they’re disinterested or not paying attention. On the contrary, introverted students can be quite attentive in class, but they often prefer to listen and observe rather than actively participate.
(In many cases, an introverted child is "saying" all the things other kids would say, but simply doing it silently in his head—which, for an introvert, is just as engaging.)
Also, if the teacher knows about your child’s introversion, the teacher may be able to gently help him navigate things like interactions with friends, participation in group work, or presenting in class.
9. Your child may struggle to stand up for herself.
So teach her to say stop or no in a loud voice when another child tries to take her toy from her. If she’s being bullied or treated unfairly at school, encourage her to speak up to an adult or the perpetrator. “It starts with teaching introverted children that their voice is important,” Fonseca says.
10. Help your child feel heard.
Listen to your child, and ask questions to draw her out. Many introverts—children and adults—struggle to get the thoughts and emotions swirling inside them out to others.
Introverts "live internally, and they need someone to draw them out," writes Dr. Laney in her book. "Without a parent who listens and reflects back to them, like an echo, what they are thinking, they can get lost in their own minds."
11. Your child might not ask for help.
Introverts tend to internalize problems. Your child might not talk to you about her problems even when she wishes for and/or could benefit from some adult guidance. Again, ask questions and truly listen, but don't interrogate.
12. Your child is not necessarily shy.
“Shy” is a word that carries a negative connotation. If your introverted child hears the word “shy” enough times, she may start to believe that her discomfort around people is a fixed trait, not a feeling she can learn to control.
Furthermore, “shy” focuses on the inhibition she experiences, and it doesn’t help her understand the true source of her quietness—her introversion.
Don't refer to your child as "shy," and if others do, correct them gently by saying, "Actually, she's an introvert."
13. Your child may only have one or two close friends—and there's nothing wrong with that.
Introverts seek depth in relationships, not breadth. They prefer a small circle of friends and aren’t usually interested in being “popular.”
14. Your kid will need plenty of alone time—don't take it personally.
Anything that pulls your child out of her inner world—like school, friends, or even navigating a new routine—will drain her. Don’t be hurt or think your child doesn’t enjoy being with the family when she spends time alone in her room. Most likely, once she's recharged, she’ll want to spend time with you again.
15. Your introverted child is a treasure.
“Don’t just accept your child for who she is; treasure her for who she is,” writes Cain. “Introverted children are often kind, thoughtful, focused, and very interesting company, as long as they’re in settings that work for them.”
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