If you’re the parent of an introverted child, you might find this article enlightening and potentially useful. If you’re the extroverted parent of an introverted child, you – or potentially future-you – could write this article.
Me, I’m an introvert. Nothing better than curling up by the fire with a good book and a hot cup of tea. My husband, he’s an extrovert with a capital “E.” His car radio: always on. Talks on the phone for a living and then, after work, calls all his friends and family. One volume: High. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a “pure” extrovert, but my husband is the closest thing to it. Imagine our surprise (especially his!) when our second son turned out to be a cautious, look-before-you-leap, slow-to-warm-up kind of child. The kind who literally clung to a tree rather than joining the other kids on the soccer field at the first practice. Spoiler alert: Our introverted child has grown up into a happy, spirited, adventurous, multi-friended college student, and we’ve gained a lot of hard-won wisdom along the way.
Some of the things I wish I’d known earlier
The characteristics of introversion or extroversion are inborn, they are part of a person’s temperament. There’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert, but if you fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you’re an “ambivert.” Being introverted is not the same thing as being shy. Shyness is a fear of negative evaluation and is a milder form of social anxiety. Introversion refers to a tendency to become overstimulated and to have a relatively high requirement for solitude or quiet time to recharge. Think of it this way: shyness and gregariousness are opposites; introversion and extroversion are opposites. These concepts are separate and distinct.
We live in a society that cultivates, rewards and celebrates extroverts. In our schools, class participation is encouraged and evaluated. In the workplace, networking and promoting oneself on social media are conducive to sustaining or seeking employment. Open-plan workspaces are designed to facilitate teamwork and collaboration. Social norms require that we engage in small talk. Boldness, gregariousness and volume are equated with confidence and garner attention.
Statistically speaking, one-third to one-half of us are introverts, and yet introversion is often considered to be odd or socially dysfunctional. As parents, we tend to hope that our children will be sociable and outgoing, and when they aren’t, we worry that something is wrong. We want our children to have lots of friends and to participate in many activities with their peers because our parents expected that of us (whether or not it came naturally). Our perception of success involves sociability. If our child is quiet and reserved and prefers spending time alone reading or playing video games, we worry it will reflect badly on us as parents. We feel it is our duty to facilitate their social lives, to encourage them to “get out there.” Starting in preschool, we schedule playdates, invite friends over and plan big birthday parties. As they get older we register them for all manner of sports and activities, and when they’re teens we encourage them to join various clubs and groups. The unspoken message we are sending: “Be outgoing, be extroverted.” Alternatively, we can appreciate our introverted child’s positive characteristics, strengths and talents.
Generally speaking, introverts prefer spending time alone or in small groups and in quiet settings. Brain science can help us to understand why this is the case. Current neuroscience has shown that the brains of extroverts are less receptive to dopamine than those of introverts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. When extroverts interact with others, the reward center of their brain is stimulated, and they feel happier and more energetic. Meanwhile, the introverted brain is more receptive to dopamine and therefore requires less stimulation. As a result, introverts are more easily overstimulated and are re-energized by quiet and solitude.
It can be challenging to know how to support your introverted child. This might especially be true for adolescents who are beginning to individuate and to advocate for themselves. Introverts have their own set of strengths. As parents, we have the opportunity to foster their strengths rather than struggle against them.
Caring for an introvert? Consider these tips:
Seek to Understand Do your best to understand and respect your introvert’s preferences. Resist the urge to push them out of their safe cocoon. They will likely gravitate to a small group of close friends (quality over quantity). Love the child you have, not the child you wish you had. Preserve the relationship. Celebrate them for who they are, just as they are. That’s what unconditional love is all about.
Respect Need for Solitude and Privacy Introverts seek out quiet and solitude, it’s how they replenish their energy so they can go back out into the world. Respect and support your child’s need for privacy. When you notice your child is feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed, encourage them to seek out their favorite safe haven for some restorative quiet time.
Identify Interests and Play to Strengths Be curious about your child’s interests. Notice their strengths. Meet them where they are. Encourage them to pursue their passions. Work with them, rather than against them. As an example, some introverts prefer individual sports like tennis or swimming instead of team sports like soccer or baseball.
Offer Encouragement Too much alone time can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. Avoid the urge to coerce or push your introverted child or teen into signing up for activities. Instead, encourage them to find and follow their own interests. Maybe they have a close friend who is involved in something that they might like to try? It might be that your introverted child doesn’t feel confident. Help them to build up their social skills and model the behavior you would like them to adopt.
Highlight the Gifts of Introversion The gifts of introversion include creativity, keen observation, loyalty, fertile imagination, breadth of interests, deep thinking, strong listening skills, introspection, ability to focus and curiosity. No two introverts are exactly alike. Your introverted child might have any combination of these gifts, as well as others not listed here.
If you would like to learn more about introversion and how to support the introvert(s) you love, you might enjoy reading Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Cain says, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”