Raising an Introverted Child in an Extroverted World

Raising an Introverted Child in an Extroverted World

We live in a society that is geared towards extroversion. Think about it: a public school system that overtly pushes class participation, a work culture that encourages networking for current and future jobs (not to mention open-plan work spaces) and a society that promotes norms like small talk. America values the bold and gregarious and the louder people are, the more confident they appear and the more attention they receive.

Estimates suggest that introverts make up at least 50% of the population, but despite this, parents and a large section of society think being introverted is an oddity. We tend to think that children should be sociable and outgoing and if they turn out quieter than their friends, we worry that something is wrong. We want our children to have large groups of friends, to be included in activities with other children because we think that’s “normal” and that’s what a successful child looks like. We don’t want our kid to be the weird loner who likes hanging out by himself because that reflects badly on our parenting skills.

So if our children, by some quirk of fate, happen to be introverts, we rush around in a panic trying to jump-start their social lives. We arrange playdates if they’re toddlers, insist on inviting their friends and classmates over if they are teens and push them to join numerous clubs and groups in a bid to make them act more like extroverts. According to Susan Cain, famed author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, this only leads to a “colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness.”

Introverts Are Born That Way

Instead of seeing introverts as failed extroverts, we should begin appreciating their unique strengths and talents. You probably know that your introverted child prefers spending time alone in quiet surroundings unlike extroverts who prefer being where the action is- but do you know why?

A study done on both introverts and extroverts showed that the latter were less receptive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. So the more extroverts socialize and interact with others and the world, the more they stimulate that brain reward center and the happier and more energetic they feel. Introverts, on the other hand, are more receptive to dopamine and require less stimulation. This is why they re-energize by being alone.

Another clue to the introvert-extrovert puzzle lies in the workings of the nervous system. While extroverts favor the sympathetic side of their nervous systems – which explains why they are always amped up and raring to go- introverts favor the parasympathetic side. This side deals more with conserving energy and relaxing muscles, resulting in a calmer, quieter and more reserved individual.

As you can see, introversion owes a lot to biology. There’s nothing wrong with your child, they’re just wired differently.

Bringing Out The Best In Your Introverted Child

Since introverts are such a widely misunderstood bunch, knowing how to raise one can be quite challenging. This is especially true of teens who are just starting to develop their identity and sense of self-worth. The most important thing in bringing up introverts is to learn to work with, not against, their strengths.

Here are some pointers:

  1. Accept and embrace.

    The first hurdle to get over is yourself. You need to accept that your child is an introvert and as such, will not be the conventional social butterfly. Although they can and will form strong friendships, they will take their time about it and will prefer solitude to hanging out with crowds. Pushing your child to have a more active social life amounts to trying to change a fundamental part of who they are. It sends a message that they aren’t good enough and this can not only wreck their self-esteem but also your relationship with them. So accept them as they are.

  2. Encourage them to seek out outlets for self-expression.

    Introverts have a fundamental need to express themselves so encourage your teen to find healthy outlets. This could be through art, creative writing, journaling, yoga or whatever tickles their fancy. Even social media, which has been vilified for the harmful impact it can have on teens, can come in handy. Social media platforms can give your teen the freedom to be thoughtful and expressive, without having to turn into an extrovert.

  3. Respect their need for privacy.

    Extroverted parents often assume the whole family needs to always do things together but this only ends up being overwhelming for an introverted child. A better approach is to plan some one-on-one activities you and your child can do together. Additionally, allow your teen to have some privacy and tranquility since introverts recharge through solitude and need quiet time to process what they observe. As one writer in The Atlantic put it, “For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.”

  4. Work with their strengths.

    While teens are naturally reticent, introverts may appear even more so. Pushing them to join groups or clubs they have no interest in may backfire. Instead, try chatting with them to learn where their interests lie and work with that. Encouraging them to do something in line with their interests will produce more favorable results. For instance, they might excel at individual sports like swimming instead of team sports like basketball.

  5. Give gentle nudges, not hard thrusts.

    Introverted teens might need lots of solitude to recharge but spending all their free time alone can easily lead to depression, loneliness and low self-esteem. Instead of trying to suddenly jolt your child by sneakily enrolling them in a club without their knowledge, gently nudge them to seek out those they share interests with. It could be that they’re not very confident and feel they don’t have the right social skills to participate in group activities. Boost their skills by teaching them simple conversation starters and advise them on how to interact with people.

  6. Teach them to understand and celebrate their uniqueness.

    Because extroverts tend to dominate social situations, introverts often feel left out of things. Teach your child to appreciate their unique individuality and talents. Let them know that their ability to listen, focus, observe and communicate with others on an intimate level is invaluable and nothing to be ashamed of. You can even give examples of famous introverted celebrities and personalities that your child can look up to.

Raising an introverted child in an extroverted world is challenging, no doubt about that. However, the key to success lies in seeing introversion as a strength to be harnessed, rather than an affliction to be cured.


About the Author: Cindy Price

Cindy Price is a Northern Utah wife, mom, and writer. She has 15 years experience writing educational content in the many areas of parenting, with an emphasis on teen-related issues, from which she applies and expounds on her personal experience raising three teenagers. You can find Cindy on Twitter.

9 Comments

Barbara

Thank you for this article. I was/am an introvert who was raised by two extraverted parents. My mother often said if I did not look so much like them, she thought I’d been switched at birth because temperamentally I was so different from them. I experienced much of what you describe – being pushed to interact. The irony is I now work in a Fortune 500 company that is a highly extraverted environment, even moreso than other companies I’ve worked for. It’s challenging because so much emphasis is placed on teamwork and group activities.I grew up in the 60’s so I can’t imagine what introverted kids have to cope with today when everything is gear to non-stop curricular activities whether it is soccer/sports, band, dance classes, cheerleading, drill team, and a host of activities. The complaint I hear is how overscheduled children are and the burden on the introverted child has to be enormous. You’ve provided some valuable advice to parents.

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Raquel

I absolutely agree with you , Cindy ! Thank you so mich for this great article !!! 🙂

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Leen

Thank you so, so much! This has really helped me understand my three teens, specifically my youngest. Because I’m a little more extroverted than them (although still an introvert), I was trying to push them a bit too much, instead of working with their natural personality. (And I was thinking there was something wrong with my parenting because it wasn’t working!)

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Intuition Wellness Center

Thanks, Cindy, for an excellent article. We spend an awful lot of time trying to mold our children to fit societal demands. This was a great reminder that often (or maybe always) we need to get out of the way and, instead of trying to fix something that’s not broken, trust that those little developing beings are just who they ought to be.

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Sarah

Thank you. I have an introverted 13 year old and I keep thinking I have to push him to join clubs and be more social. This was very helpful to me.

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Mary

Thank you for a great article Cindy!! I myself have an introverted 13 year old and am learning so much about what a unique wonderful human being he is. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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Jo Lynn

Thank you so much for this article. I have a 21 year old that has had a hard time since highschool. I wish I would have read this article sooner. Maybe I could have minimized both his and my frustration.

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Love

Thanks for the article Cindy. I have issues on my 5yr old daughter. she is an introvert. I don’t want her to end up like me. I have stage fright, I’m shy, not the talking type. all because of my faulty childhood.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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