You and I both know that we live in an extrovert’s world, especially in terms of what our culture values. The gregarious personality is celebrated, and often more quickly trusted and embraced. The quieter personality, in contrast, is often misunderstood and frankly mistrusted. If you don’t believe it, you might be an extrovert and should probably go right now and ask an introvert.
What does this cultural bias mean for our more quiet or socially-avoidant children? As it 100% affects their lives, it’s something we parents just can’t avoid ourselves, or be quiet about.
“Don’t be so shy!” or “Don’t be so antisocial!” Have you heard those (or said those) before? Sometimes they’re whispered and other times they’re said quite loudly. Let’s pause on the second one for a second - the actual definition of ‘antisocial’ has nothing whatsoever to do with being shy. Antisocial personality disorder is also called sociopathy (read: psychopaths). Generally speaking, it’s a lack of empathy, remorse, or what we call ‘conscience.’ It is NOT being shy or preferring some solitude. Antisocial personality disorder can be quite destructive and requires significant professional help. Shyness does not. Ok, so let’s never mix those up again, shall we?
What we’re talking about, of course, is introversion, and it’s not a dirty word.
Introversion is a hardwired preference to recharge one’s energy inside oneself and usually by oneself - requiring solitude. It’s not that introverts all want to live in dark caves, but simply that social interaction is draining and requires solo recharge time. Extroversion doesn’t mean someone never likes some solitude nor that they never get a bit socially nervous, but rather that, typically, the external world is more recharging than draining. Extroverts, therefore often naturally seek out social interaction whereas introverts are naturally more drawn to less socially demanding activities. There is, of course, a natural spectrum we all fall somewhere along. Even extroverts will crave some ‘me time’ to relax and most introverts probably do want to be invited to the party - they just don’t want to be pressured to go. Loud, crowded social interactions are usually pretty stressful for introverts, draining their energy instead of recharging it. Extroverts, this does not mean there is something wrong with introverts. This is a natural human hardwiring, just like extroversion is.
We (probably) just don’t understand - I didn’t
As much as we might want to, we extroverts really can’t relate. We are rarely told, “Don’t be so social! Why can’t you just seek some solitude?” I say “we” because, indeed, I am an extrovert.
About 15 years ago, I married a very wonderful introvert. At the time, please don’t laugh, I considered myself an introvert. My husband did laugh, a lot, when I first mentioned this. My very large family of origin is, by and large, very extroverted. I would call many of them “turbo extroverts,” able and excited to connect with really almost anyone (or everyone) whenever they go. It’s like a portable party. In comparison, I really was convinced I must be an introvert. Wrong. While I’m definitely a self-labeled nerd and observer, I am very much an extrovert, excited to go to social events and, yes, I make friends at the grocery store.
An introverted friend used to say “People often think ‘still waters run deep.’ But most times still waters just run still.” Scientific American's 2014 article "Will the Real Introverts Please Stand Up?" worked to dispel misconceptions of introverts and extroverts: “The most common misunderstanding of the extraversion-introversion dimension is that introverts are more introspective than extroverts.” There’s not necessarily a deep mystery or dark secret lurking behind the silence. Plenty of extroverts are also daydreamers and researchers (ie. yours truly).
So how does this relate to our children?
Several years ago, I was visiting friends with a young daughter. They had friends with their own little boy over to hang out and play in the sprinklers. Little boy was clearly disinterested in playing with everyone in the sprinklers. His mom and dad clearly wanted him to. He was actually pretty scared of the sprinklers and also pretty wary of the whole social scene at hand. An otherwise sweet couple, I watched as they prodded and cajoled their son to join in, saying things like, “We’re here to have fun!” “Don’t be such a poop!” and to my friends, “Sorry he’s so shy.”
I was itching to go whisper in the parents’ ears, “It’s really ok. He’s really ok. Back off a touch and let him find his way. He’s probably feeling pretty overwhelmed right now.” What I really wanted to say is that introversion and anxiety about new things are not defects their child needs to correct. And it’s nothing they need to apologize for. The couple could have focused on visiting with our mutual friends and let their son focus on what he found interest in, instead of what he found terrifying.
Shouldn’t little boy be allowed to not want to follow his parents’ agenda for the afternoon play date? He wasn’t hitting anyone or making a mess. He wasn’t even particularly demanding of their attention (a hot topic for another day). He was desperately trying to opt out of an activity he simply didn’t want to do and that had made him the center of attention and some attack.
It seemed like the parents were terribly embarrassed that their child wasn’t ‘performing’ in the gregarious, happy-go-lucky manner they might have envisioned. The great divide between our parental visions and our actual children is stuff for another blog (or two).
Back to the sprinklers.
He didn’t want to play in the sprinklers. Why should he be forced to? Even shamed to? It can feel awkward for extroverted parents to feel their children are ‘missing out,’ or ‘being rude” when they’re not ‘jumping right into the fun’ or being ‘the life of the party.’ What they most likely are doing is, well, not being extroverts.
While we may not be able to totally stop our visions (or illusions) for and about our children, we are a step ahead when we can recognize them as just that. And then we are ten steps ahead when we recognize and appreciate our children for who they are, instead of who we may wish them to be.
Raise your hand if you ever liked your parents saying things like, “Why can’t you be more like your sister/brother/cousin/friend?”
If they ever did say these things, you may recall your emotional reactions to such a plea. Did you wonder why it wasn’t enough to just be you? Your introverted child might be wondering the same. Really.
What do I do?
So, do we just allow our kid to be ‘shy,’ to not socialize, to not play in the darn sprinklers? Yup! In fact, what we CAN do is be their advocates - defenders of the right to be an introvert.
As wisely suggested in Psychology Today’s Dec 2018 article “15 Things You Need To Know if Your Child Is An Introvert,” if a friend or relative says something like, “Is she/he ok?” “Oh, is she/he shy?” we can warmly smile and brightly say something like, “Actually, she/he is an introvert and she/he is doing really great. How are YOU?” Reframe, validate, and quickly move the spotlight OFF of the very person in the room or playground that really does not want the spotlight. Really really really.
No, I’m not saying to ignore the introverts. Not at all - what a huge loss that would be for everyone. There is a middle ground between shining the spotlight on someone who doesn’t want it and totally writing off “the quiet ones.” A lot of ground.
I’d like to suggest that we start approaching that middle ground by simply appreciating that, while introverts usually enjoy one on one conversations, they probably don’t want to be the center of a group’s attention and they definitely don’t want pressure to interact.
They do want friends (duh) and do want to be invited to do things (they are people after all). But try to take a “no, thanks” not as a rejection but as an affirmation of their needs.
We extroverts have needs too, just often in reverse. When my husband doesn’t get enough solitary recharge time, he sometimes asks me what it might feel like if I were forcefully deprived of interaction for days in a row. I imagine being invisible or locked in my room - which for a few hours sounds glorious, of course. Having three children, a full time school job, and various other responsibilities leaves me wanting a daily nap and some quiet time with a book, but some chosen quiet is different than forced silence. I would feel strange and maybe even desperate if people around me didn’t make eye contact or talked with me, whereas my husband feels exhausted if everyone talks with him constantly or requires his sustained attention. It’s who I am. That’s who he is. Not better or worse, just different.
I sometimes feel like I’ve been closely studying another species. And what a gift. I don’t think I could have ever really appreciated the beauty or even simply the reality of introversion otherwise.
I’ve been lucky as an extrovert to have a number of very close introverted friends and to have worked with hundreds of introverts in schools and other situations of continuity. I’ve picked up a lot of tips that I still have to remind myself of:
Specifically with children, I try to remember:
Big gifts for everyone
You may be gifted with introverted children. You may already know how engaged and engaging they can be, especially one on one. You may already delight in their interests and personalities. But, if you’re an extroverted parent, do you catch yourself in social situations wishing your child would share more with the group? Do you get impatient for them to warm up to new people? Does it feel uncomfortable that they’re avoiding the very thing you find so exciting and energizing? It’s totally normal to feel those things.
Let’s stop a moment and imagine the world in reverse. Extroverts, would we want our parents to say about us (and in front of us), “Why are you so over-talkative? I wish you would stop bothering everyone. Go play by yourself for once! Hopefully this social thing is just a phase you’ll grow out of.” Or whisper to a friend, “Sorry, she/he is so social.”
Hopefully, you feel empowered to take a pause and think more of how your introverted child might be feeling. She/he might be nervous, or they could be perfectly content to be more on the sidelines. What they probably won’t do is tell you what they’re feeling in front of everyone. No no no.
Like extroverts, introverts are always growing and changing. If they ask for help - great! But oh, please, don’t make a scene. In fact, use your powers of extroversion to show your kiddo you value their powers of introversion. No need to speak FOR them, but make it cool and comfortable for you and for everyone around you. Let them warm up and approach on their own terms and in their own time.
Your gift to your child is to recognize and appreciate. It just feels better for everyone. We all struggle with something. There’s no need to struggle against nature. Introversion is not a disease. It’s not contagious. It’s also not curable because it doesn’t need to be cured.
The gift parents get in return is that we don’t need to change anything! Our introverted children will appreciate our embrace of their nature even more than an extroverted child might appreciate a surprise party.
Does any of this resonate with you? We welcome your comments for discussion and ideas.
[This article was reviewed before publication by several wonderful introverts, independently, of course.]
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL