In sixth grade, Marsha Pinto’s teacher wanted her to talk more loudly and more often, repeatedly telling Pinto that she would never succeed if she didn’t participate in class discussions and group work. The teacher may have had good intentions, but she called on Pinto daily, and when Pinto was bullied, the teacher suggested it was because she didn’t stand up for herself.
“She even said if I didn’t participate, I would fail,” says Pinto, a recent college graduate who now lives in New York City.
Pinto was quiet, often slumped in her seat and kept her head down. She easily got lost in books and tended to spend recess alone, generally by choice. The cluster seating and collaborative work that her teacher preferred made Pinto feel detached and more awkward. Those feelings were exacerbated when the teacher called on her. The pressure from the teacher, along with bullying by a group of girls who regularly teased Pinto about being “weird,” took its toll.
“I came home crying a lot, never wanting to go back to school,” says Pinto, now 21.
Pinto was, and is, an introvert. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver and author of “Upside-Down Brilliance,” says extroverts get energy primarily from others, while introverts can become overloaded or drained by the outside world and sometimes just don’t need or care about it. It’s somewhat different from shyness, which can be a debilitating discomfort around others, often despite a strong desire to be more social.
There is greater understanding of introverts, and their talents, now than there was even 10 years ago. Even with all of the Internet memes celebrating introversion, though, we still live in a culture that champions outgoing leadership, vocal collaboration and visible performance. That can make it tough for introverts to feel as though they fit in.
But Pinto’s parents were supportive of her natural tendencies. Instead of pushing her to be more extroverted, they appreciated her as she was and advocated for others to do the same. They found the sweet spot that experts recommend between supporting and understanding Pinto, while encouraging her to get involved in small after-school groups.
“We felt that pushing her into activities and forcing her to speak would make her feel that she was lacking in something, and that could affect her confidence,” says Pinto’s father, Melwyn Pinto. “We only encouraged and supported her when she wanted to pursue things.”
That gentle encouragement helped her discover strengths, including public speaking. She became the star of the student morning broadcasts in middle school and tried to participate in class more. Marsha Pinto thrived in classes with teachers who appreciated her quiet involvement, often because her parents clued them in to her natural tendencies. Now, she works as an advocate and spokeswoman for young introverts.
By the time Pinto was in high school, increased public awareness about introverts — fueled by books, Ted Talks, support groups and advocates — helped. But she says it was her parents’ support that was most critical to her success.
“I just got a message from a parent worried about her child not having friends,” says Pinto, who is completing an internship in speech and language therapy. “I told her if her child seems happy, it’s fine. Make your child feel valued because unfortunately in our society, the quiet ones often aren’t. Mine looked at my strengths instead of judging me, and encouraged me to do things I liked and was good at.”
Silverman agrees that parents of introverts need to relax and embrace their child’s strengths.
“Parents and teachers aren’t working overtime turning extroverts into introverts,” Silverman says, “but they do try to remake introverts into extroverts. And they don’t need to.”
[Your introverted child has secret strengths, says Susan Cain in her new book “Quiet Power”]
Research shows that introverts are less impulsive and better able to avoid risks and are often more creative and get better grades than extroverts, Silverman says. Some research shows that they are more attractive to others and have better relationships. They may even live longer and are often comfortable being alone or with just a few friends with similar interests.
“Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily and work more accurately,” says Susan Cain, author of “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts.” She says extroverts, like dandelions, can thrive in any circumstances, while introverted “orchid children” need a bit more care but “become a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”
Here are suggestions, from Silverman and other experts, on how parents can help their introverts thrive.
Nudge, but be patient. Accepting your child’s introversion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gently push them to expand their comfort zone.
John Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, has studied introversion extensively. His research shows that with more engagement, introverts can refine their social skills and increase their confidence. Children also change, and over time may become more interested in socializing or even leadership roles, and then could regret not having developed those skills, he says.
Cain agrees, saying that “parents shouldn’t shelter them from difficult social situations” and should “show them that they understand and sympathize and want to help.”
Silverman says parents who pay attention will “intuitively understand when and how to encourage their children to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone.”
Provide practice. Give your child safe places to try being more outgoing, and allow them to get comfortable with it. Encourage them carefully, Cain says. Ask an introverted child to explain an interest to a familiar adult, for example, or suggest they order their own food at a restaurant and pay the cashier. Have an older child write the teacher a note about an unfair grade or a friend about a confusing encounter — and, perhaps, have them ask for time to talk.
At home you can also create scenarios and have a child talk through or act out responses. What will they do when they have to choose a seat at lunch?
Help them find a niche. Cain suggests parents should help introverts find activities they enjoy and are successful at, even if they seem to contradict the child’s quiet nature. Actors and other performers often are introverts. Pinto found she was comfortable as a speaker when the words were provided and she had a captive audience.
Others, however, may be more comfortable behind the scenes as the editor of the school literary magazine or newspaper. A tech-savvy high school junior may shine explaining the workings of a robot to middle school students after school, and a good musician might give basic piano lessons. Provide options and encourage, or even require, participation in one.
[How I learned to understand my introverted child]
Carefully plan encounters. Cain notes that introverts might feel more comfortable if they arrive early for a birthday party or go with a friend. Allow them to join activities slowly or stay on the outskirts and plan for a break if they get overwhelmed. Always have an exit strategy, Cain says. Even if they don’t intend to use it, knowing it’s there can ease their mind.
“Escapes and backup plans are essential so the child doesn’t feel trapped,” says Silverman. “Parents tell me, however, that once they participate, they enjoy it. If that’s your child’s pattern, remind them of how much fun it was last time.”
Build in structure. At home, give your introverted child quiet time, but have normal expectations for chores, homework and keeping to a regular schedule. Introverts, warns Sophia Dembling, author of “The Introvert’s Way,” can get lost in a book or a movie, so structure is important.
Work with them to develop a plan for the evenings. Include time reading or on the computer, but also a chore that requires thought beyond their private world and perhaps social interaction. Dembling’s parents asked her not to read at the table, and she is happy they did.
She notes, however, that “a completely unstructured day once a week might be very good, too, for an introverted kid.”
Teach mindfulness. Yes, it’s trendy and can help pretty much everyone. But some research shows that introverts benefit from mindfulness and relaxation techniques more than extroverts because their brains are more easily aroused, which causes them to avoid stimulation and feel better when they calm it down, according to Peter O’Connor, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia who has studied therapies to help shy and introverted people. He recommends children’s yoga, simple breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation exercises for five to 10 minutes.
Zelenski also suggests that they may be happier if they consciously try to improve their mood by thinking more positively.
And being patient while gently encouraging your introvert can pay off.
Pinto’s parents remember when she told them that she planned to participate in a speech competition.
“She spoke about her shyness, and she won it,” Melwyn Pinto says. “This quiet, introverted kid won the public-speaking competition. The stone the builders rejected suddenly became the cornerstone.”
More from On Parenting:
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My child is a perfectionist. Here’s how we find balance.