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