Supporting Introverted Children with Love and Respect
A few years ago, our local school organized a crafting afternoon for all families. When we arrived, I noticed the craft activities had been set up in a very large and bright room. Children were running around, talking, laughing, and being lovely and loud. My then three year old, bubbled in, found a teacher he had met a few days prior and started making a feathered yellow duckling. My oldest son was five at the time, and jumping feet first into large, loud, social activities just wasn’t his style so we hung back to observe.
Friendly words of “Hello” and “Join in” from some of the teachers turned into “Hey buddy, what’s wrong? Why don’t you come in and craft with us?” and eventually into “Hey there…We don’t bite, come on…It’s soooooo fun!” After five minutes passed and he still wasn’t ready, the words turned into cross looks and questions to me…“What’s wrong with him?”
Hearing “What’s wrong with him?” or “Is he always shy like that?” is often a bit of a theme for parents of introverted children. Our society tends to place a lot of value and welcoming smiles for extroverted children and is quick to assume introverted children need to be coaxed or fixed or forced to be more like the naturally extroverted, bubbly children.
So, about ten minutes into being at the crafting event, we walked over to the duckling station, and my son found the project he was interested in, gathered some materials, sat down next to a classmate, and they crafted, laughed, and played until the end of the event. There was nothing wrong, my introverted son just needed time.
Basically, there is nothing wrong about being introverted or shy. Actually, there are a whole lot of good qualities that come with it. Dr. Sears has explained in several of his writings that introverted children are often calm, observant, and cautious. Many introverted children have a solid sense of self, are polite, and enjoy playing independently. Much like introverted adults that drive to seek quiet is a natural way for introverted children to find moments for inner reflection and learning. Introverted children don’t need to be fixed – they just need to be better understood.
Is it tempting to coax an introverted child to be more outgoing? Absolutely. For instance, seeing my bubbly, extroverted second child being received with smiles and open arms just about everywhere, makes it extra difficult at times not to want that same kind of warm reception for my older child. Forcing extroversion however doesn’t create it; in fact, it often leads to more reclusion and a negative pattern of interactions.
Introverts that are pushed tend to pull back towards quiet even more. Too much of this dynamic of pushing-pulling away is detrimental because it squashes the introverts inner voice of calm and confidence in directing their own needs.
When we force a quiet or introverted child to step it up, participate already, dive right in, or join in all the fun before they are actually ready, the message we send is very negative and shaming. “There is something wrong with you! Be like the others, not yourself!”
Honestly, I used to worry – not so much about my son’s introversion but on how to navigate the questioning and cross looks we so often deal with. I have learned to drop the worry and instead of motivating my son to be more extroverted, I have learned to simply support him with love and respect.
I have practiced not putting my son on the spot and I don’t expect him to jump into social situations. I let him have some say over his social life, striving to create a healthy balance between alone time and time with friends. He often comes with me to the grocery store and to run errands, and I see these as great chances to model social interactions. Some days, he asks to stay home, mostly because I am “too chatty” in the car… and that is fine, as well. If I need to offer him guidance, I strive to do so in a low voice, with empathy and respect. My son is not likely to greet anyone with big fuzzy smiles and hugs, and I know he means no disrespect by it. Sometimes, all we really need to do to reconnect is to sit together on the sofa, side by side, each reading quietly and not saying a word.
In the classroom, if he could, he would complete all of his work in the first two hours and then read quietly the rest of the day. Yet, he participates well, answers and asks questions, works in small groups, and has even presented science experiments in front of a group of 20 other children. I credit his teacher for having patience and letting his comfort and confidence emerge instead of pushing it with prizes and bribes.
Is there such a thing as too much shyness? Yes, sometimes social anxiety or low self-esteem gets masked as introversion or shyness. Children that have difficulties making eye contact with trusted adults in their life, refuse to speak to anyone but their parent or only whisper, cry about social situations excessively, refuse to play with any similarly-aged playmates, or find it difficult to make friends should be assessed by a professional, such as a developmental specialist or psychologist. Not wanting to jump into, say, a judo or swim class on the first try however is likely not an indicator of a problem – it is simply caution and restraint.
Introverted children are often misunderstood. They may not leap into Santa’s lap for a picture or smile “nicely” at store clerks. They may prefer to listen instead of speak; they may like to be quiet and reflective instead of loud and bubbly. Like any child, what they really need to flourish is encouragement, acceptance, empathy, respect and love for being just the way they are.
Peace & Be Well,