You love meeting new people and readily jump into new experiences. Yet you're often bewildered by your child, who is happy with only one or two friends, dreads social events, and enjoys playing alone. Should you be concerned? Although children can experience depression and anxiety just as adults do, chances are, your child's behavior is an indicator of his or her innate biological temperament. In other words, your child is probably an introvert.
He or she is in good company: almost 50 percent of the U.S. population can identify themselves as introverts, according to a 1998 study by Myers-Briggs. This company includes notable inventors, scientists, musicians, writers, and leaders, such as J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa. Many of the traits commonly displayed by introverts, such as abstract thinking, observation, prolonged focus, and introspection, allow them to develop musical, literary, or academic gifts, according to Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., author of The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child.
So, how in our high-energy culture, can you raise an introverted child to not only accept, but embrace his or her innate temperament? Read on for a few simple tips:
Understanding Introverts: Parenting Tips for Introverted Children
- Recognize your child’s strengths. We live in a culture that values extroverts, yet people with introvert personality traits have much to offer. Get comfortable with your child's temperament and needs; help your child feel comfortable with himself or herself. Avoid labeling your introverted child as "shy," which is often viewed as an unchangeable, potentially negative trait. Instead, help your child understand that being introverted is simply one part of who he or she is. Try explaining, "Not everyone loves going to big parties and that's okay. Some of us just need a few really good friends."
- Set your child up for success. Introverted children are often slower to warm up to new experiences and new friends, often needing more time to make decisions or respond in conversation. Talk with your child about what to expect before a birthday party, the first day of school, or a new activity. Let your child stand back and observe for a while before jumping in. Help teachers understand your child's need to "think things through."
- Teach skills. Your introverted child might not ever be the "life of the party," but we all need a basic understanding of social etiquette to function in life. Healthy emotional-social development in children involves learning the basics of social interactions: how to greet others and introduce yourself; how to compliment someone; and how to engage in small talk. Many introverts feel uncomfortable talking about themselves, but become adept conversationalists because they know how to draw out others by asking questions. Teach your child these skills and offer encouragement when he or she takes social risks.
- Allow for downtime. One of the major differences between introverts and extroverts lies in how the two groups refuel their batteries. Extroverts thrive on social interactions, while introverts may actually enjoy having time alone. If your child seems irritable or overwhelmed, the problem might be an overfilled schedule. Try paring back extracurricular activities to one or two each week. Talk with your child about what feels good to him or her until you find the right balance.
- Find the right fit. As parents, we want our children to be well-adjusted socially, yet these skills can be learned in a variety of ways. Encourage your child to try a variety of extracurricular activities, rather than insisting on a certain activity. Not every child enjoys the competitive energy of team sports, for example. An introverted child may prefer a less intense activity, such as individual sports, music or art lessons, chess club, or a book club. These experiences all have value and teach children important life skills, while accommodating individual preferences. Understanding introverts and their inclinations allows you to best cultivate your child's passions.
One caution: in general, we avoid labeling children because there is the effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think a child is introverted, we will respond to him or her as such, and he or she will act that way as well. Extroverted and introverted behavior is on a continuum, and different situations can elicit different responses from your child. Use this information to see your child as an individual and recognize his or her strengths and challenges.