My older daughter is an introvert in the truest sense of the word. She draws her energy from being alone. Interacting with other people is an incredible drain on her energy. And the thought of having to address a problem situation or be a part of conflict is horrifying on a scale that is almost paralyzing.
My daughter is almost 14, and it has taken me nearly that long to figure out how to parent an introvert and how to help her navigate a world that tends to reward extrovert behaviors. I couldn't be more different from her. I love people. I've never met a stranger. The more people there are around me, the happier I am.
But my daughter doesn't operate like that, and while I don't truly understand her dislike of crowds and small talk, I do know that God made her that way for a reason. She is just as "fearfully and wonderfully made" as all the extroverts in this world.
Recently, we've encountered a couple of situations that remind me just how hard this world is to navigate for the truly introverted. Raising an introvert takes an extra measure of wisdom and patience. It takes encouraging and prompting and a lot of understanding of how the introvert brain works.
So, here's five things I've learned in nearly 14 years of parenting an introvert:
1. Introverts don't need lots of people. It used to frustrate me to see my daughter always on the fringes of events. She'd be the one on the outside of the team huddle or the one standing on the corner of the room at a party. She might be talking to one or two other people, but she was never seeking out people to talk to. The truth about introverts is that they simply don't need a lot of people in their lives. They need a handful of people who they know they can count on, and that's enough. They aren't necessarily interested in making a whole bunch of new friends, and their extrovert parents need to be OK with that. Success is not defined by how many friends you have. It's the quality of those relationships that matter.
2. Change is hard for everyone, but it's even harder for an introvert. Changing teachers, coaches, teams or houses is harder for introverts than it is for extroverts. Change means your introvert is going to have to expend a whole lot of emotional energy to make new friends or impress a new teacher or coach. They aren't naturally inclined to reach out to someone else, so if they encounter a coach, teacher or a group of kids who aren't willing to invest some time in getting your introvert to open up, then introverts may have a really rough time until they can muster up enough courage and energy to reach out to someone themselves.
3. Don't correct behavior in front of other people. Unless it relates to the safety of your child or other people, save your criticism and correction for a private moment. Introverts hate to be the center of attention for any reason but especially if they have done something wrong. If you want your correction to be effective, do it in private. If you correct them in public, the likelihood is that your child will be so mortified at being corrected in public and so distraught about being the center of attention that they may not even hear what you're saying.
4. Praise is important. Introverts tend to internalize everything. They often don't speak up for themselves even when they believe the other person is wrong. It takes a huge amount of emotional energy for an introvert to tell you you're wrong or that they disagree with you. It goes back to the drawing attention to yourself thing. Many introverts take everything that's said to them to heart, which means they need plenty of praise when they are doing something right.
5. Keep the yelling to a minimum. As I said, introverts really don't like to be the center of attention. Nothing draws attention to them like yelling. My daughter tells me that when she is being yelled at, she can't even focus on what's being said. Not because she doesn't want to or she's not trying. She's simply too upset about being yelled at to focus.
Being introverted doesn't mean that your child can't succeed in this world that tends to reward extroverts. It just means that you'll need to do a lot more parenting and coaching along the way. Here are five strategies I've learned for helping your introverted child navigate a world that requires so much energy from them.
1. Protect your child's alone time. Introverts truly need to be left alone to recharge. If your child disappears into her room for hours at a time after a ridiculously busy week, leave her alone. Check to make sure nothing is wrong, then respect her need to be alone. She'll rejoin the family when her tank has been refilled.
2. Coach your child through difficult situations. When your child encounters a situation that requires him to resolve a conflict or have a hard conversation, be his coach. Role play the situation. Throw every possible reaction you can think of at him. Encourage him to write up some notes to take into the conversation. Simply drawing attention to himself by starting the conversation will be nerve-wracking for your introvert, so having notes to rely on will help him remember all the points he wanted to make.
3. Keep groups small. If your child is having a party or getting together with some friends, keep the group small. Your child is going to interact better with a couple of people she really likes than with a group of 10 or 15. Don't insist on 20 people at her birthday party if what she really wants is her two closest friends. There's nothing worse than watching your child wander the fringes of her own birthday party (believe me, I know).
4. Ask your introvert what their thoughts are. Introverts often won't volunteer their thoughts. I'm pretty sure my daughter's sixth-grade language arts teacher had no idea who she was. My daughter never raised her hand in class, so the teacher never heard from her. My daughter is smart and funny. She has incredibly deep thoughts, but a lot of people miss out on the chance to hear those thoughts because they are waiting for her to share them on her own. The best question you can ask an introvert is "What do you think?" You might be surprised at the response you get.
5. Be patient. It may take your introvert longer to settle in to a new situation than other kids around her. It took my daughter an entire year to get her feet under her in middle school. She's struggled through other situations like changing coaches and having to make new friends, as well. And it always seems to take her just a bit longer than other, more extroverted kids. Be there to offer encouragement, mop up tears and offer up different strategies.
Parenting an introvert can be an exercise in patience and frustration, especially if you're not an introvert yourself. It can be hard not to just step in and deal with a difficult situation for them, especially because you understand how much of an emotional toll those situations can take on your introvert. But the best thing we can do for our introverts is to treasure their personalities and offer strategies and encouragement for dealing with those tough situations. We can help set them up for success without changing who they are.
Because the last thing we want to do is devalue our child's inherent personality. Those introverted kids are often some of the kindest, most compassionate people you'll meet -- probably because they are busy watching others while us extroverts are busy talking.
Introverts can succeed in this world. They just need a little coaching, a lot of love and the knowledge that their less-exuberant personalities are as valuable as those of their extroverted friends and family.
Don’t forget to check out my new book Everyday Truth: Teaching your kids about God during life’s everyday moments. Available in paperback at Amazon.com.