The signs are as clear as the nose on your face: as a toddler, your daughter had extreme stranger anxiety and a great deal of trouble warming up to new people (even her grandparents); as a preschooler, your son came home from daycare and immediately escaped to the privacy of his room; as a teenager, your child could speak beautifully in front of the whole class but avoided the after-school social because she said she couldn't deal with large groups of people. Congratulations! You're raising an introvert. How on earth are you going to cope?
Introversion is not a pathological condition but to many extraverted parents, it sure can feel like it. Before you gave birth to this gorgeous creature, you had dreams about playdates with other moms, soccer matches and dance recitals, and loud, raucous parties involving the whole class. Now your child's eating lunch alone with her head in a book. And because you don't understand this behavior, you might try to help your child become more social, more outgoing, more gregarious. You might even blame their quiet personality on your own parenting skills.
It takes all kinds to fill the world, and a better approach is to understand your little Introvert and appreciate their differences. Here are some ways to help you embrace your natural Introvert.
Look deeper, see more
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman coined the acronym WYSIATI - "what you see is all there is." It explains a form of decision-making bias whereby we jump to conclusions based only on the things that we know. We don't spend much time on the things that we don't know, or which might not be immediately visible to us.
As parents, we may see our introverted child spending a lot of time reading, or with a single playmate, or being alone in their room. If we think our child should be more social, we might worry about this behavior. We don't stop to ask, "wait, is there other information I might be missing?"
But if we looked a little deeper, we might see that our child is spending a lot of time with the same friend because they like and value this friend, not because they don't have any other friends. We might notice that our child is extremely social in class but is battery-drained; they're just ready for some downtime when they get home. Stopping to think about what's really going on can make us look at our child's behavior in a completely different light.
Lose the 'shy' label
Contrary to popular opinion, most introverts are not shy, which psychologists define as being more fearful than usual in social situations. If an introverted child hides behind you in a new situation, he's not usually doing it because he's anxious. Rather, he's doing it because he's checking out the room, and sizing things up before he makes his grand entrance.
Tagging your child as 'shy,' or accepting the label when other people use it, invites cliché and gets in the way of accurate comprehension. It can also be harmful to your child's self-esteem since the designation is not usually something that your child will feel proud about. Talk to your child about what's really going on, and discourage the use of such negative designations.
Talk to your child's teacher
It's an open secret that our schools prefer Extraverts. The education system is built on group work, quick thinking and speaking up. Introverts are at a disadvantage, so the relationships you develop with your child's teachers can make all the difference for them. Make sure that the teacher knows about your child's introversion and their preference for working alone. Share some techniques that the teacher can use to gently help your child navigate tricky situations like participation in group work or presenting in class. Your child's school experience will be far more positive if her qualities are valued as much as those of her extraverted peers.
Mirror your child
All children, whether they are extraverted or introverted, need someone who understands them, who values them, and who enjoys them for who they are. Without a parent who truly listens, and gives them time to communicate in their own way, and echoes back the response, the child may not feel respected.
Introverted children communicate differently to extraverted children, since they need plenty of time to reflect on the conversation and mull over their response. It can be hard for extraverted parents to listen patiently while their introverted child gathers their thoughts, since your instinct is to jump in and fill the conversation gaps. But forcing an Introvert to communicate this way makes them withdraw. A better strategy is to mirror your child, and copy her language, tempo and tone when communicating. Mirroring is a proven way to establish trust and understanding, and can really help draw out your child's feelings.
Step off the friendship treadmill
Extraverted parents often push their children to be more sociable by arranging endless activities or signing them up for a team sport like baseball. But it's inconsistent with the introverted temperament to go from one group of friends to another, or from playdate to playdate. In large groups, your child can easily become overwhelmed and will soon hit an emotional wall.
Embracing the idea that your child may have only one or two friends at a time is a simple kindness you can pay them. Often, introverted children gain the most confidence with just a few close friends. Protect their right to say "enough!" and listen when your child tells you that they want to go home or only play with Maisie.
Don't make it about you
One thing you will learn very quickly is that sometimes, your introverted child just wants to be left alone. This does not mean that they are unhappy, or standoffish, or lonely. Introverted kids simply have a preference for less noise and less action - the type of situation that can leave you feeling restless, sluggish, and bored. Accept that your child's quieter nature is not about you. Don't take it personally or coax your child to be anything other than who they are.
Parenting an introverted child boils down to one simple truth: the more you embrace your child's unique temperament, the happier your child will be. Perhaps the most important step you can take is to learn, and celebrate, the introvert's world, instead of trying to make them change to fit in yours. You will do such a wonderful thing for your child by simply understanding them.