Are you raising an introvert? Here’s how to bring out the best in your child
Are you worried that your child is at a disadvantage because he’s an introvert? Well, stop worrying! Introverts can be as successful as extroverts. Here’s how to maximise your child’s potential.
By Devishobha Chandramouli
It was just another normal day. I opened the gate of the day-care centre compound, carrying my just-turned-one baby, the supplies bag dangling from my shoulder. With my free hand, I led my toddler, who trudged along beside me. As soon as I entered the room, my baby wriggled out of my arms, attracted by the sight and sounds of the other kids. Meanwhile, my toddler walked to a quiet corner, a spot she had carefully chosen to suit her need for staying apart from the ongoing activity, and sat down with a book. As I waited in vain for my baby to at least turn and give me a good-bye look, engrossed as she was in her interactions with the other children, the difference in my children’s personalities seemed more apparent than ever before. One was obviously an introvert, the other an extrovert.
Understanding introversion and extroversion
Who is an introvert? The word ‘Introvert’ means ‘inward turning’. An introvert is someone who tends to be focused on internal thoughts, feelings and moods, instead of seeking external stimulation. Introverts seek solitude because it renews and recharges them. Being around a lot of people drains them.
Who is an extrovert? The term ‘Extrovert’ means ‘outward turning.’ An extrovert is a person who tends to derive energy from external stimulation, mainly through interaction with other people. Action and loud noises energise and invigorate extroverts and they dislike working alone.
As any parent with two or more kids can testify, our children present us with a range of experiences. Each of them is unique because of their differing personalities. I am a parent of two, and I get to see an introvert and extrovert in action at the same time. The above example shows that my older daughter is comfortable by herself; her own inner world seems much more rewarding to her than the group of peers outside it. She doesn’t seem to want to socialise with the other kids, unlike my younger one.
Extroverts, on the other hand, like to be the centre of attention. They are the popular ones. They seem to do quite well for themselves among strangers. They are usually able to talk themselves out of any sticky situation. In other words, they make their parents look ‘hands-off’ and still seem fine.
If there’s one thing that’s evident from the difference between the two personality types, it is this: Society awards an aspirational status to extroversion. It is easy to see why. In modern times, a child’s abilities are judged by his active participation in and with a classroom or group of people. As adults, we have a work culture that emphasises the skill called networking (which, in turn is fuelled by small talk) for professional success. No wonder parents of introverts try to intervene in their child’s social life in a bid to get them to ‘gel’ with others.
We tend to view introverts as failed extroverts, which is not just unfair and harmful to introverts, but completely unnecessary too.
So, what does it mean to be an Introvert?
Seven years of research into the brains and lives of introverts led to the publication of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a Harvard psychologist who examines the rise of the extrovert ideal and the need to refute that ideal. About 30% of the population are introverts, and we still don’t understand them very well.
“Introversion- along with its cousins, sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness, is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are”, says Cain.
Cain’s book became a bestseller because it seemed to speak directly to introverts, and finally seemed to explain why we need to quit putting down introverts.
Biological aspect of introversion
For a start, we need to understand what makes introverts, well, introverts:
- Introverts and extroverts have different sources of energy
The brains of introverts and extroverts are wired differently to draw energy from different activities and external settings.
- The reward networks in their brains are different
Dopamine, a chemical in the brain that motivates a person to achieve external goals and rewards, works differently in extroverts and introverts. According to Scott Kaufman, the Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute (USA), both types of personalities have the same amount of dopamine in their brains, but the dopamine reward network works differently. In extroverts, the dopamine reward network encourages them to become more talkative and kindles their tendency for risky behaviour. Introverts, on the other hand, do not respond to dopamine very much, making them resistant to taking risks in new environments.
- Introverts are wired to turn inward
In The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, Marti Laney writes about the significance of a different neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine, like dopamine, is also related to pleasure; however, it gives pleasure when a person is turned inward.
Acetylcholine is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is engaged, the body conserves energy by withdrawing from the external environment. While introverts favour the PNS, extroverts naturally favour the opposite part - the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The biological explanation amply proves that introverts and extroverts are just wired differently. Introversion is not a handicap. It’s just another way of being.
Now that we know there are biological differences, what can we do if we are in the company of introverts?
The first step is to be aware of the myths surrounding introverts. Here are a few:
Myth: An introvert is shy
Fact: Introversion is not the same as being shy, or being socially anxious, or having inadequate social skills. These behaviours can surface if the introverted child is forcibly put in situations that demand interacting with a large number of people, frequently. Introverts don’t enjoy small talk, but welcome deep, sustained discussions on even those topics that they are unfamiliar with. In fact, many introverts make excellent conversationalists.
ParentCircle spoke to Dr. Madhurini Vallikad, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from NIMHANS, on shyness and introversion
“The difference between introversion and shyness is the difference between personality and behaviour. The two are very different. Both introverts and extroverts can be shy; shyness falls at the lowest end of the social anxiety spectrum. So, for example, being nervous about public speaking has nothing to do with your personality—it is a type of social anxiety. While introversion cannot (and should not) be changed because it is part of one’s personality, shyness can be overcome by a calm and accepting parenting approach.”
Myth: Being an introvert is a deterrent to success
Fact: Success in any field requires a strong, sustained and deep interest and passion in something - and that is often a natural trait in introverts. It also does not mean that introverts are not good team players - they can be very communicative once they have established a zone of comfort with their teammates. However, many of them prefer to work alone or in small groups. In fact, many introverts have been super-successful – for example, Albert Einstein, C. S. Lewis, Lance Armstrong, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Rene Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Warren Buffet, Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Myth: Introverts dislike people
Fact: There is a mistaken notion that introverts are asocial, reclusive or rude. It’s true that introverts tend to leave a loud and noisy party at the first chance. They are not exactly the back-slapping, bear-hugging kind. But many actually do quite well in social gatherings. (Socialising is indeed an effort for them, and they may need time alone in a calm, familiar environment to recharge, but once they do that, they’ll get back out again if need be). In fact, introverts often keep and cherish deep, long-term friendships even though they do not exactly make friends at the drop of a hat.
How parents can bring out the best in their introvert child
If you are raising an introvert, here’s what you can do to help your child:
- Recognise the signs: Signs of introversion can show up very early in life. Introvert babies show reluctance at being helped or entertained by strangers. Sometimes they show signs of being overwhelmed in large gatherings, like a wedding or a mall. They are intensely possessive about their personal space.
- Accept and understand the need for solitude: Once we understand how introverts function, it’s not hard to identify their need for calm and solitude. Find pockets of quiet time in a day that can help your child relax. If there’s a big outing planned in the evening, make sure she is recharged with alone time during the day. Dr. Vallikad, speaking on the importance of parental acceptance, says “A sensitive parent (whether an introvert himself or not) should allow his introverted child to be herself - encourage her to meet people but not put pressure on her to socialise. Never try to change an introvert’s personality and never label her as shy.”
- Help your child understand his own needs: Introverts need time to think and respond, so it’s a good idea to never put them on the spot. Prepare your introverted child ahead of time when facing social situations. For example, at a party, don’t expect him to mix with everyone. Instead, help him with conversation starters he could use to interact with a few people.
- Teach your child assertiveness: Introversion is often mistaken for meekness; introverts tend to get bullied because they are usually loners, as opposed to extroverts who are often surrounded by friends. Help your child practice assertiveness by role-playing some common social scenarios.
- Seek the cooperation of other adults: The other parent, her class teacher, close relatives- these are some important adults in your child’s life. If they have a different set of expectations, have a chat with them and let them know about your child’s needs. If the teacher has a complaint, or if issues crop up (say, if the child is feeling threatened), it is imperative to intervene. If you don’t, at best, she may be left to her own devices.
- Help him plan and prepare him ahead of time: Cain has started a movement called the Quiet Revolution to help the world understand introverts. Many parents often wonder, “So does that mean my introverted child can never be persuaded to participate in a challenging group task?” Cain says we should definitely prepare our children by planning ahead. For example, if your child has to speak in front of the class, help him prepare by speaking in front of a friend or parent. If you push him without preparation, the experience can be extremely nerve-wracking and might leave him with a bad aftertaste.
- Remind her of her strengths. Remind your child that she is able to think and ponder deeply, and present her views well. Engage her in conversations that bring out her analytic thinking. She may be a good painter or have other talents. Bring them out. Also remind your child of the healthy friendships that she has invested in, though they may be few in number.
- Do not force your child to make friends: Introverts are perfectly capable of making friends; they just do not do so on anybody else’s terms. It may seem like your child is disadvantaged when he decides to just stand back and take in the surroundings thoroughly, but this cautious and meticulous approach is his strength. Forcing him to ‘mingle’ too quickly will only backfire, and may leave him with an awkwardness or fear of social interactions that may be difficult to erase or overcome. Once a child finds someone he likes, the friendship is likely to run deep. To enable your child to make friends, invite one or two children that he is comfortable with to your house, instead of asking him to socialise with the whole class or big group of peers.
Raising an introvert is challenging, but also rewarding in many ways. All you need to do is understand how an introvert thinks and feels, and allow the child to just be. Standing back a little here, nudging a little there, you can enjoy raising your introvert, and help her to enjoy life too.
In a Nutshell
- Introverts and extroverts are biologically different. Introverts are wired to recharge from quiet time, unlike extroverts
- Introverts are often mistaken to be shy or meek, but that need not be the case
- Parents of introverts can help them ease into new situations by respecting their need for personal time and space even while preparing them to socialise
What you can do right away
- Provide your introverted child with lots of quiet time and solitude
- In public places, allow him plenty of time to stand back and observe. Do not force him to play with other children
- Remind her of her strengths, and help her be confident of herself
- Practice with him ahead of unavoidable situations where he has to interact with large groups, and give him networking tips
About the author
Written by Devishobha Chandramouli on 30th July 2019.
Devishobha is the founder of Kidskintha- an online parenting resource repository dedicated to jumpstarting conversations around millennial parenting.
About the expert
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 31st July 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
Flip through our clipbook on Introvert children here.
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