I was always a highly introverted child. It showed. For instance, when I was in high school, I learned that for my dance group’s upcoming graduation dinner, the other dancers selected me to receive the spoof award for being the “Most Reserved.” Knowing how much I despised being called by a “label” like this one, my Mom suggested that I tape a sign that read “I AM NOT SHY” to the back of my underwear. She said that when I walked up to receive the award, I should moon everyone with my, ahem, (not shy side). Although I appreciated her sentiment, I did not take that advice.
Fortunately, the award never happened, but the message to me was clear. I’d known since I was little that I was simply wired differently from some of the louder kids. And being the good parent that she was, my Mom supported me in that.
Even the littlest kids intuitively know how people want them to be.
In general, the mainstream society in which I live views a gregarious extrovert as socially “good,” whereas quiet seems to imply some kind of problem. It isn’t a problem at all, of course. Well-meaning adults often pursue introverted children who aren’t quick to respond with a sweetly teasing inquiry of “Oh, are you shy?” No matter how good-natured the intention, a child can perceive this as, “You, little human, are not okay as you are.” Let’s fix that.
In truth, the child may not be shy at all. He may just be an observer who wants to find acceptance in the world. We all want that acceptance. Splitting hairs? Nah. For some, it’s actually quite different, and both can be completely developmentally normal. There’s a difference between lacking confidence and being an observer who’s sure of oneself. Some kids just prefer to enter the pool through the shallow end, so to speak.
Going slowly gives introverted kids the information they need to feel comfortable in new situations. Regardless of your child’s confidence, it’s important for an extrovert who might not share the same “wiring” to understand that the seemingly innocent question about shyness can embarrass or cause pain for some introverted children. Talking with someone who’s not a parent, sibling, or close friend might be a completely different experience for that child than it is for someone else.
But is introverted the same thing as shy?
No, it’s not. Shy is a feeling alongside a behavior, as in “I felt shy and hid behind my mom when everyone in the room looked at me.” Introverted simply means that someone feels recharged after being able to spend time alone, sometimes with a small group of close friends. Spending time with large groups of people can feel emotionally draining. It’s usually temporary and is not a reflection of the child overall. Conversely, extroversion means that someone gets his or her “energy” from being around other people.
It’s more about the types of interactions that deplete or invigorate us than it is about how we act in any single situation.
What about a highly sensitive child? Is that the same thing?
No, it’s not. Introverted children are not always highly sensitive, nor is extroversion a trait of lack of sensitivity. Plenty of highly sensitive children like to spend time with others and get a lot of energy from being around others. The behavior of highly sensitive children varies considerably from child to child. That said, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, 70% of highly sensitive children (HSCs) are also introverts, so there’s a lot of crossover.
For those of us who have the quiet ones in our homes, part of respectful parenting is accepting our children exactly as they are.
Here are some ways you can support them “in the moment.”
When in a situation that’s typically challenging for your introverted children, talk ahead of time about what to expect (even if they’ve seen it before).
To you, it might just be another kid’s birthday party. To your child, it might be “a place where people I don’t know look at me and adults try to talk to me, and noisy kids are everywhere.” Rather than telling your child what others expect of him (which she can perceive as pressure), state just the facts and describe what your child is likely to see there. Then, remind your child that you (or another trusted adult) will be with him the whole time. Finally, agree on a script of what he can say if he needs support. If talking to another adult without your involvement is tricky for your child, consider giving him a small “help card” to show that adult, instead.
If you’re staying present with your child, try this.
Wait to see if that anyone says anything to your child, and let your child enter the social scene at his or her own pace (or not at all).
If someone does say something to your child, then ask your child something like this (within earshot of that person): “Would you like to respond, or shall I tell them you prefer to observe?” There are lots of variations you can try here. Now that I have an introverted child of my own, I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice with her. Once we graduated from this question, we moved onto, “Would you prefer to say ‘hi’ or wave?”
Remember the importance of your loving, supportive touch along the way. Introverted children need their parents to follow their lead and reassure them in verbal and non-verbal ways. Your positive support will make the experience less hard, and much more positive, for them.
It’s fine to encourage without pressuring. One helpful hint is to wait just past where you’re comfortable and give your child enough time to respond. Sometimes it just takes a moment; release your expectations that they won’t do it. Maybe they will!
Above all, introverted children will grow in confidence if they feel your unequivocal support.
Respect your child’s choice.
If she chooses not to engage with someone who’s talking to her, simply tell the other person: “She prefers to observe until she knows people better.”
Support your child by not offering apologies or excuses.
It’s sometimes tempting to overcompensate for child who isn’t responding to another adult (or child). If you apologize for your child’s lack of response, it might placate the other person, but it sends the message to your child that he’s done something wrong. Of course that’s not your intention!
What should you do instead if your child isn’t responding? Simply smile at the other party and continue the conversation normally. It sends that person AND your child the message that this is no big deal. That’s great for your child’s comfort level and self-esteem. We all feel more compelled to engage when we lack pressure to do so.
Reframe your wording.
“Shy” and all its word-cousins have a stigma in the culture where I live, although they shouldn’t. In many countries, it’s actually perceived as rude if an extroverted someone is too over-the-top with energy (and words). In my home, we’ve banished all references to shy, reserved, and similar; instead, if we use any label at all (and we try to avoid them), we use it only as a verb. With child-first language, we say, “My child prefers to observe.” I want to raise her knowing that labels don’t define her. She’s not my “shy child.” She’s my child.
It’s helpful to listen to your children and seek understanding of what resonates with them. Every child’s personality and preferences are different.
Share your own experience with your child.
Spend time talking about a time you preferred to observe as a child. Introverted children love hearing that others have felt the same way they do. Even if you were usually the life of the party, you likely remember a time that you didn’t want to be in the middle of the action. Present it as a positive; it’s affirmation that your child is perfectly okay just as he or she is. Your child will flourish best when he or she feels like you “get” it. If you worked through a tricky situation, tell your kid how you did it. Explain your own strategies that have worked (while framing introversion in a positive light).
Understand your child’s heart.
You know your child best. What kind of stimulation does he or she enjoy? Watch them for cues without projecting your own experience, or that which you’ve seen the media say is “normal.” Are your kids happy spending time in simple play with family, or do they require many activities throughout the day with a large amount of socializing? If you contact your child’s teacher with questions about how they learn best in class—in groups or individually—that can be a clue, too. If need be, rule out anxiety disorders that may be affecting your child’s social-emotional comfort.
Quiet or not, you’re raising a person who will look to you for validation that he or she is “good enough” for the world. There’s a lot of pressure out there. And you, dear parents, when you support your children just as they are, are doing them a wonderful and necessary service.
If you don’t have an introverted child, the best thing you can do is let the quiet ones be, without judgment or comment. The world needs all of us.
Further Reading about Introverts
(Amazon afflinks): These books by Susan Cain and others helped me understand many introverted kids better than any others I’ve found; I highly recommend them. If you are, or know, an introverted or sensitive adult, they provide fantastic insight.