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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.