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.

15 Comments

Sharon

I wish I’d had this great advice 21 years ago!
My son & I have struggled to get along because neither of us understood each other!
I the extrovert and he the introvert.
I could not figure out what was wrong and why we could not connect.
This article made me realize I have been so wrong!!
Looking back at my sons childhood he was always the one sitting observing at the Gymboree classes and not participating!!
He has no interest in team sports but loves golf, paint-balling and fishing!!
Very private, calm and loves being an only child.
This article gave me so much hope and what I need to make changes to support my son.
Thank you

Reply
Pinaki P

Thank you for this excellent article. For articulating for those who refrain from expressing themselves.
Your suggestions are excellent , kind and effective.

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Margaret G

I am a 73 year old Introvert.My idea of a good time as a child was reading in the large broom press in my home. I was sent to ballet,acting classes,all to improve my small self.I was quite good ‘passing’ as an extravert,it was exhausting. I held my own at travelling arou nd the city of Dublin,watching learning all that was available. I was a biddable child,but still ended up in frustration,worry with a child psychiatrist,who pronounced me OK. I eventually realised myself at about 35 years that I was never going to like large crowds,happy with one person. I am no genius but I do feel that a lot of children who are on the autistic scale are in fact introverts,to me their avoidance of the social is part of their world.
Naturally at my advanced age I no longer give a hoot.

But I do care deeply for parents who have such a little girl,be kind to yourselves,know that they are quite OK.

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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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Jamyang C

I have 10 + years old son. He is very much introverted. Dont at all go out side. Stays at home only. Only one friend. Dont know how to deal with people. Dont eat much and he is very weak mentally n physically. Very much worried for him. Your kind tips to make my some overcome all these things will be highly appreciated. From Bhutan.

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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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Sharon

I have a 21 yr old son who I could not understand. He is an introvert and prefers to be alone. He loves golf, fishing and paint-balling but never liked team sports we dined him up for.
He has friends but no longer contacts them and nudging him to connect with them has gone on deaf ears.
If we have anyone stopping by he needs to be made aware as if he needs to prepare fore it.
This article gave me new hope to step back and let him show me his interests.

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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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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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Sandy D

Mine is only 8 and I am an extreme extrovert and it kills me to see that she doesn’t wanna do anything except stay at home in her room on her iPad. I have tried to enroll her in Girl Scouts, gymnastics, church clubs, but all she wants to do is stay home I would love to hear more about introverts. Should I let her be this way or is there something else I can do for her?

Reply
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.

Reply
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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Raquel

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

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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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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