So You've Got An Introverted Child?
Maybe you know all about the life and needs of an introverted child because you're also an introvert. Or maybe you're pulling your hair out because you're extroverted and nothing about this sweet child of yours makes sense. Whether you understand her or not, she deserves allowance to be who she is.
Why Your Introverted Child Needs Support
We live in a society where politeness and friendliness are supreme. As adults, we understand that if a stranger smiles at you in the grocery store, politeness dictates that you smile back, maybe even offer a "Hello, how are you?" This is a learned behavior, and often quite difficult for even most adults to accomplish. (We've all had those days where nothing at all can snap us out of a cranky mood.) Those moments are magnified for our kids, especially when they're young.
Young children are adorable and everyone and their brother wants to say hi and receive a sweet, chubby-cheeked smile in return. For an introverted child, that moment of expectation in the grocery store can leave them feeling uncomfortable, even fearful. My five-year-old is as introverted as they come. When a stranger says hello to her, she resolutely sets her eyes somewhere off to their left and pretends they do not exist. I learned, much later than I should have, that pushing her to respond in kind would only make her more uncomfortable. And I'm also introverted! How can we empower our introverts to be courageous and friendly but also honor their personalities?
Expectations Start With You, Her Parent
The first step is to stop caring how other people feel. I'm being totally serious! All too often, we, as parents, feel this unspoken pressure to have perfect children. If my kid throws a fit in the grocery store, I feel like everyone around us is judging me as a mom and a human being. If my kid doesn't respond politely, then I must be failing at teaching him manners. If he doesn't smile at you in the store, it's because I'm not a nice person. These sound ridiculous when I say it like this, but we've all felt this to some degree. Our children are a reflection of us and we want to be seen as competent and capable, not embarrassed or judged.
So, step one, Mama, is to toss all those expectations aside and let your kid be himself. His tantrum is not a reflection of your parenting. His tantrum is a reflection of his own developing ability to regulate his emotions. Sure, you can help him learn those skills (and you should) but he's NOT going to get it right every time. Heck, you don't even get it right all the time! Give him grace and space. Grace for the times he's just not up to it and space to figure out how to manage his own feelings before you swoop in to help.
6 Ways To Support Your Introverted Child
1. Stop Telling People She's Shy
Your words have the incredible power to define your child. If she always hears you apologizing to those polite grocery store people by saying she's shy, then she'll start to believe she's shy. Newsflash, being introverted doesn't mean you're shy! It means you recharge your batteries by spending time alone. I know plenty of people who are quite outgoing and social and are also introverted. But if you're sweet girl grows up constantly hearing her personality defined as shy, she's going to internalize that message and she will become shy. Ask me how I know.
My vivacious, talkative, bossy oldest, when she was three, literally hid behind my skirt at the farmers market one afternoon while I had a conversation with a friend we hadn't seen in a while. After we parted, she looked up at me and matter-of-factly announced that she couldn't talk to them because she was shy. Couldn't. You guys... My heart broke that day. I haven't used the word shy around her since. And neither has she. Oh, she's still hesitant around new people. She still sometimes chooses to pretend grocery store shoppers don't exist. But only sometimes. Other times, she'll smile and wave.
2. Let Him Have Time Alone
Introverts recharge their batteries and recover from stress by being alone or with one or two people whom they know and trust very well. That meansyour child also needs time alone or one-on-one with you to calm down, find peace again, and truly relax. This is especially true if he's in school or spends his days at a daycare center with other children. Introverts tend to burn-out on other people's emotions or energy. We need space where only our emotions are present so that we can refocus.
Allowing your child to spend time alone in his room to read or draw or even play video games is perfectly normal and should be encouraged. When my daughter is feeling overwhelmed, and you can tell because she gets grumpy and snappy, she'll tell her little sister that she just needs some alone time. She's five. I've shown her that it's okay to retreat a little, that it's healthier on her relationships to take a time out.
3. Don't Force Your Young Child To Interact With People She Doesn't Want To
You wouldn't dream of forcing your child to hug a stranger. You want to empower her with the knowledge that she, and she alone, has control of her own body. So why would you force her into conversation with someone she's not comfortable with?
For an introvert, each day starts with a 'glass full' of emotional energy. Every interaction draws some of that out, like tipping a few drops over the rim. Interactions with trusted friends or family use only a couple drops. Interactions with complete strangers use quite a lot more. Simply saying hello to a stranger may use just as much emotional energy as a full hour conversation with someone she knows. Introverted children don't know yet how to regulate the loss of that emotional energy. If you find yourself constantly nagging your young child to be polite and respond to a stranger's advances, take a step back and reassess. Is it necessary for her to respond? Can you respond just as easily and both show her by example and protect her emotional energy?
4. Learn To Gauge His Emotional Energy Level
That glass of emotional energy I told you about... There are signs to watch for that will tell you he's close to running dry. When he withdraws from conversations with those he's closest to, like a sibling or you, he probably needs time to recharge. Grumpiness, sadness, anger, and a shortened temper can all be signs that he's done for the day. If you learn to recognize it, you can teach him to recognize it too. And that puts him one step closer to being able to regulate his own emotions.
5. Teach Her How To Conserve Her Emotional Energy
It can be difficult for an introverted adult to conserve energy, so this will require lots of patience and practice from both of you. Show her that she can smile at that stranger rather than say hello. Talk to her about ways to reduce overwhelm at school by knowing that it's okay to do the things she wants to do, even if her friends are doing other things. (An all around good message for our kids to hear!) Show her by example what it means to love yourself, to value your own emotions, and to care about your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
6. Protect His Emotional Space Until He Can Do It On His Own
People have expectations for us everywhere you look. Parents, teachers, coaches, and, yes, even strangers have expectations for your children. That doesn't mean your kids have to be and do all the things those people expect of them. I could go on and on about how unhealthy it would be to try to live up to all of those, but I think you get it.
Being Mom means you have the weighty responsibility of protecting your children from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual threats. If your introverted child freezes up around people, try to get to the bottom of why it's happening. If he needs more space, make sure he has it. If he needs more courage, equip him to be brave. But most of all, show him how by your example. Let him know his opinion matters, his voice is heard, and his self is his. The more you validate his feelings, the more he will validate others.
What Would You Add?
I'm sure some of you (about half, I'm guessing) are introverts. What are some ways your parents helped equip you to cope with a world that wants your undivided attention? What are ways they may have failed you? As parents, we're all just trying to do our best. I know I don't always get it right. It took me three years to realize the effect my words were having on my daughter. Thankfully, our kids are gracious and forgiving and they bounce back pretty quickly from most things. Keep doing your best and adjusting as you go and you'll do great!