Few traits are as misunderstood as introversion. Introversion is not a childhood phase one is destined to grow out of, nor is it “shyness.” Shyness is a form of social anxiety, whereas introversion is a pattern of social needs and preferences. Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily self-conscious, awkward loners. They often enjoy the company of others and have a healthy social life; they just socialize (and recharge) differently than extroverts do.
Making Friends as an Introvert
Introverts typically prefer to have a few close friends, rather than a large group of companions. This is the case both because introverts tend to be reflective (and therefore enjoy enriching one-on-one conversations) and because meeting new people uses up a great deal of their limited social energy. Don’t mistake this pattern for a lack of interest in other people; introverts often form deep attachments—they’re just very focused and selective.
If you’re parenting an introverted child, it’s important to avoid assuming that she (or he) is unhappy with having just two or three friends. Unless your child expresses dissatisfaction with her social life, let her interact with others on her own terms. Don’t criticize her for not having a large social circle and accept her desire to limit her exposure to group activities.
The Need for “Alone Time”
The parents of introverts often worry that the amount of time their child spends alone signifies poor mental health. Fortunately, this usually isn’t the case. Instead, spending time alone is actually part of how introverts protect and rejuvenate their psyche. For an introvert, spending time with other people becomes mentally and emotionally draining fairly quickly. As such, they need to retreat and isolate themselves periodically in order to regain their energy.
While it’s true that extreme, chronic isolation can be a hallmark of depression in children, it usually manifests along with other symptoms, such as a loss of interest in hobbies and a change in eating or sleeping habits. Ergo, if your child likes to spend a lot of time alone but still appears to be happy, healthy, and engaged, there’s probably nothing to be concerned about.
Note that when your introverted child is young, you’ll probably notice that she becomes cranky and irritable after spending too much time in social settings. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t enjoy the party or event she attended; she’s just reached her social limit for the day. When this happens, it’s best to give her a “time out” or head home for the evening. Likewise, don’t make the mistake of trying to “cure” your child of her introversion by signing her up for numerous activities outside the home. Overloading your child will only increase her need to retreat from others.
Unsurprisingly, introverts tend to enjoy solitary activities like reading and playing computer or video games. However, their capacity for self-reflection, imagination, and thoughtful analysis also makes them passionate creators. Many introverted kids thrive if given a creative outlet like art, music, or writing.
When your introverted child is interested in joining in a group activity, you should allow her to observe said activity for a while before jumping in. Most introverts like to hang back on the sidelines until they feel as though they fully understand the dynamics of the situation in front of them. This isn’t necessarily a sign of shyness or timidity; introverts just prefer to become intellectually familiar with things before they experience them directly.
Introverts tend to be excellent listeners. They seldom interrupt or “talk over” other people; more often than not, they patiently and attentively take in information. When they do talk, they often break eye contact and keep their responses brief but meaningful. They prefer to say what they mean in a frank, honest way and avoid needless small talk.
If you would like to engage your introverted child in conversation, the best way to help her open up is to tap into one of her interests. Because introverts spend a lot of time cultivating their passions, they usually have a great deal to say about their projects and pastimes. Just keep in mind that you should allow your child to take her time when answering you: Introverts like to carefully think through what they’re about to say before they say it. You also shouldn’t be surprised if your child prefers to write her thoughts and feelings down, rather than expressing them through verbal speech. Introverts often have an easier time conveying their thoughts via the written word.
Unlike extroverted children, introverts actively dislike being the center of attention. Even positive attention can become very overwhelming for them in group settings. While this trait can make introverted kids appear very humble and grounded—both laudable qualities—it can also have downsides. Introverted children may not be able to advocate for themselves very well, for example. Additionally, gifted introverted children are at risk of “dumbing themselves down.” That is, they sometimes start to intentionally underachieve in order to avoid getting too much positive attention at school.
As the parent of an introverted child, you should be aware that introverts often behave differently at home than they do at school. Your child might be fairly talkative and receptive to praise at home where she is comfortable, for instance, yet still struggle to handle positive attention at school. It’s a good idea to ask your child’s teacher for feedback on how she handles classroom environments.
In general, introverted children thrive when provided with a calm, consistent, yet enriching environment. These kids dislike sudden changes to their schedules and intrusions into their space, preferring to have reliable periods of quiet time in which to process their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and feelings. However, if you give your child the space, she needs to explore her inner world, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the insights she eventually chooses to share with you. Introverts are known for having a unique perspective on society, precisely because they spend a great deal of time detached from it. Many of our best thinkers have been profoundly introverted individuals.