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Your seemingly shy child might be an introvert or a highly sensitive person.

Not Necessarily Shy
By Suellen Chipman-Brown

Your seemingly shy child might not be shy at all. She may, instead, be an introvert or a highly sensitive person, both of which are perfectly normal and healthy traits. Instead of trying to change these children, many of whom have trouble thriving in an extroverted world, parents can provide them with love, understanding, advocacy, and coping skills that will help them blossom into the thoughtful, giving, creative people they are wired to be.

Many people believe that children need to be sent to daycare or early childhood classes in order to overcome shyness and learn how to socialize in groups. However, that doesn’t often help and, in fact, as the previous article describes, leaving a child on her own too early can even create some of the problems you’re trying to prevent.

Aside from that, you might be working against your child’s own personality. A child who appears to be shy or “clingy” may actually be introverted, and simply prefer to spend time alone or with a few special people, rather than to socialize in the large groups into which we often put young children. So if you try to apply those ubiquitous tips for helping a shy child to become more outgoing, you might be frustrating both yourself and your introverted child and you’re not going to change the child’s nature anyway. Introversion is as much a part of a person’s makeup as hair or eye color and trying to turn an introverted child into an extrovert can damage her self-esteem and create stress.

The Introverted Child

Fortunately, there are ways to support introverted children, beginning when they’re very little. Signs of introversion can show up very early in life, often making an appearance in the first year. As babies, introverts can be reluctant to be held by strangers, are easily overstimulated at the grocery store or at the park, and get fussy when their personal space is invaded.

Being an introvert in an extroverted world can be tough, especially if you’re a kid. So, as the parent of an introvert, you might want to help your child by providing her with some coping strategies and educating family and friends about this wonderful personality trait. If you respect your young child’s introversion and share your understanding that her personality type is normal and healthy, you will help her develop her self-esteem and a self-understanding that will assist her as she approaches the tween years, when feeling different from one’s peers can cause great distress. Supporting her natural instincts and personality from an early age will help her feel comfortable in her own skin.

If you’re an extroverted parent, you will need to try and understand what it means to be an introvert. And even if you’re an introvert yourself, now is a good time to better understand yourself. When you read details about this style of social behavior and interaction, emotions, and ways of expression, you will have a much better sense of how best to parent an introverted child.

Remember that just because your child spends time alone, won’t talk about his feelings, and dislikes birthday parties he is not necessarily in some kind of emotional distress or will be socially handicapped. Introversion is not a response to outside influences. Additionally, not all introverts are shy or have poor social skills. However, after engaging in social activities, an introvert will be emotionally drained and need time alone to “recharge” his emotional batteries. That might explain your toddler’s grumpiness about group work at that lovely little preschool you chose because it appeals to your extroverted personality.

That also is the crux of introversion: It is all about where an individual draws their energy from – being alone or in the company of others. People who recharge their batteries through solitude are introverts; those who recharge by being with others are extroverts. Carl Jung said that introverts are interested in “the inner life of the mind.” In fact, studies show that some of the most creative people are introverts.

However, that preoccupation with their interior world can make introverts seem aloof or unhappy. Because they are happy having just one or two close friends, they may be perceived as unpopular or not well adjusted. Or shy. But the truth is quite different: Introverted children are creative problem solvers who love to learn, have a high EQ (emotional intelligence), and are in touch with their feelings.

Highly Sensitive Children

Your child could also be “highly sensitive” – a term that describes those whose nervous systems are sensitive to stimulants in their environments. Dubbed “orchid children” by University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician Dr. Tom Boyce, these kids make up about fifteen to twenty percent of the population. This biological predisposition is not the same as having an introverted personality, but an estimated seventy percent of highly sensitive people are also introverts.

Your child may be an orchid if he is upset by unexpected change and overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation like bright lights, complains about uncomfortable clothing, quickly picks up on other people’s distress, dislikes noisy places, and notices subtleties in his environment. They also tend to prefer to reflect before acting and generally behave conscientiously.

Experts find that, like orchids, these children will thrive – be healthy, do well in school, and enjoy strong relationships – if they are brought up in the right environment. On the other hand, they can often, like orchids, wilt easily in the wrong conditions.

Whether your child is introverted or highly sensitive, or both, she will require your help to navigate a world that is not particularly friendly to her needs and preferences. You both need to understand and remember that she is not odd, lacking in anything, or mentally or cognitively ill or maladjusted. And it might do everyone a favor if we all cultivated quieter, calmer, more contemplative surroundings!

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, has written about parenting introverted children, and her advice works for both types of children. She says, “The best thing parents and teachers can do for introverted kids is to treasure them for who they are, and encourage their passions.”

* * * *

Parenting Introverted Children

  • Respect your child’s need for reflective solitude, as well as time and a private retreat space to play alone.

  • Respect her desire to have just a few friends and don’t push her into relationships she doesn’t want.

  • Organize one-on-one play dates rather than large group get-togethers.

  • Don’t push him into large group experiences when it’s not necessary.

  • Accept and appreciate your introverted child, who may be kind, thoughtful, focused, as long as she’s in a setting that works for her.

  • Encourage your child’s capacity to develop enthusiasms and passions.

  • If you think you might be an introvert, cultivate your own self-awareness, and work on feeling good about those introverted traits so that you don’t model negative feelings for your child.

  • Respect your child’s limits and help him approach new people and things at his own pace.

  • Recognize that communication about feelings can be difficult for an introvert and give your child plenty of outlets for expression like journaling, art, and lots of time for free play with toys and characters.

  • Don’t insist that your child verbally report to you about her experiences without allowing her some time to reflect.

  • Don’t refer to your child as shy, because it carries a stigma and she may not, actually, be shy; shyness is different from introversion.

  • Help him to conquer any nervousness about new situations by, for instance, arriving early, claiming some space, walking him through a new experience.

  • Support and advocate for your child’s interests among siblings and other family members, friends, teachers, and help them understand introversion as a personality trait.

Learn More

Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012)

The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World by Marti Olsen Laney (Workman, 2005)

The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron (Three Rivers Press, 2002)

Suellen Chipman-Brown is the extroverted mother of two introverted children who has worked as a daycare administrator.


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