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How do I raise an introverted child?

April 13, 2015

I have always been somewhat of a quiet person- someone who doesn’t want a lot of attention and who needs down time, especially after a social event. I am an introvert through and through and when I met my husband, one of the things that drew me to him was the fact that he is one as well. We have a mutual understanding that there will be times that there is quiet between us, times when one of disappears into a book or activity for hours, and comes back with renewed energy.

When our son was born, I figured it was likely that he would follow suit, but at the same time I hoped that he wouldn’t. We live in an extroverted world; the very culture in America is extroverted, with an emphasis on being social, making and having lots of friends, and being active. I worried that he would have a hard time fitting in with others and being comfortable in groups, and I was right.

Around one-and-a-half years old, I took my son to “Mommy and Me” type music classes. My son would sit with me, play with instruments, sing a few songs, but as soon as it was time to get up and run around and play with the other toddlers, he would head right for the door. I mean, he would literally walk to the door of the room, put his hand on it, look at me, and say, “Go? Now?” Poor kiddo. He was just done. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t anxious. He just didn’t want to stay. That was when I knew he was going to be just like me and his dad.

Shyness and introversion aren’t always the same thing

Many times over the years, people have said things to us like, “It’s ok that he’s shy.” Not everyone seems to realize this, but being an introvert does not always equal being shy. Shyness is very different, and there is nothing wrong with being either way.

Introversion and extroversion are concepts developed by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung in 1921. An introvert is someone who is characterized by getting energy from time alone or from solitary activities, like reading, playing an instrument, going on a run or walk. An introvert prefers time alone or with a few friends to that of a large group or a big party. An extrovert is quite simply, the opposite. The typical extrovert enjoys and gets energized from being around others and is more likely to become bored if they are alone for an extended period of time.

Shyness, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined by being easily frightened or timid, or feeling nervous or uncomfortable when talking to people. Shyness has nothing to do with a need for “alone time,” but since there is the common thread of either being afraid to engage with others or simply preferring not to engage with others, it is easy to see how the two can look the same.

My son isn’t really shy. He has not exhibited a fear of others or talking to others, but he has definitely showed a preference to “do his own thing.” He has passed on play dates at friends’ houses, and not because he doesn’t like his friends. He has hung back at a birthday party and sat with his dad instead of playing with the other kids. He has sat in his room for hours, constructing elaborate worlds with his Legos, not once requesting to have a friend over. His behaviors remind me of myself at his age, yet I have felt compelled to find ways for him to engage with others.

How do parents balance their introverted child’s social activities with their need for alone time?

It’s funny because, as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, I have had fellow parents and friends come to me for advice about the exact same thing with their own child. Well-meaning parents have asked me what they should do with their quiet child, and I have consistently told them, “Let your kid be the guide on this. They will let you know what they are comfortable with and what they are uncomfortable with.” However, when it’s MY kid, I have a hard time taking my own advice. What’s worse is that, when I was a kid, I was the exact same way! You would think I would be extra empathetic, but instead I felt the need to push him to be something he isn’t.

My thought was that time alone was good, and I understood why it was needed. But, TOO much time alone did not seem like a good idea. How does one find the balance of spending time with others but still meeting the needs of an introvert? I was all for moving at the pace that my son wanted to go, but it seemed like he rarely wanted to be social outside of school and sports. I worried that he would miss out on friendships, miss out on fun, and miss out on social skill building. Even I, I thought, used to want to have friends over!

My husband and I talked with his teacher. She told us that he was pleasant and friendly with every student, but definitely didn’t mind being quiet. I watched him interact with his team at practice. He would talk and play with everyone. Yet, when it seemed like a good time to invite someone over to hang out, he just flat out refused. It just didn’t seem like he was being social enough. Every flyer from school that offered an opportunity to socialize was declined. Skate Nite, Spirit Night, Singing Club- it was a NO to all of them. We started thinking about telling him that he simply had to do SOMETHING. Surely, once he started doing whatever it was, he would like it?!

Then, a few weeks ago, a flyer came home for a one-mile race just for kids being held at a nearby mall. I asked, expecting a “Nah,” but was surprised with a “Oh yeah, I already decided I’m doing that.” Um, OK! We got a positive confirmation on an activity! Immediately after I recovered from my surprise, I signed him up, thinking that he finally found something he wanted to do, and we were going to hold him to it! The next day, I talked with the parent of one of his friends. He told me that his son wanted to run in the race too, but they had a prior commitment. Immediately, I found myself saying, “We’ll take him!” Socially speaking, I knew this was a bit of a risk for my quiet boy, but at the same time I really felt that it would be okay. I knew he would enjoy time with (and competing against) his buddy. Later, I told my son we were bringing his friend along and all he said was, “OK.” My husband and I exchanged a look of triumph.

The day of the race finally arrived and the two boys stood at the Start Line, chatting and laughing. They ran, they talked, they looked to be having a great time. The next day driving in the car, I asked my son if he had fun at the race.

“Yeah, and I think it was even more fun with a friend. Without him, I think I would have felt awkward,” he said.

I smiled and casually replied, “Yeah, that’s one reason why it’s good to spend time with friends.”

“You’re right, but now I’m just ready to hang out at the house,” he answered.

Spoken like a true introvert!

What I learned from this (and am continuing to learn) is that it really is okay to let your introverted child guide you when it comes to their social lives. However, it is also alright to blend in a little social time when you are confident that they will end up enjoying the activity and the people involved. Going forward, I will remember this when opportunities arise that are more fun to do with a friend. After all, there is a huge difference between a big push and a little push to try something new.

Are you raising a child who is an introvert? How do you manage balancing their preferences when it comes to their social lives?