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

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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?

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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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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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